EYEWITNESS NEWS (WBRE/WYOU) — A special I-Team report focuses on a crime that’s expanding across our region and the nation in recent months.

And in some cases violence has been associated with it. The thefts of what some call “liquid gold.”

Investigators and oil industry officials tell the I-Team these crimes are raking in around $75 million a year. It involves organized crime and the black market.

We are talking about the theft of used cooking oil from restaurants and across Pennsylvania, including dozens in Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania. Last October video was taken of a suspect ramming the vehicle of a business owner in West Pittston. He tried to prevent the would-be thief from leaving.

The drama unfolded near the “B3Q’ Smokehouse in West Pittston. Police released the video in the hopes it would help lead to an arrest and it did. Investigators say the man driving the van and who stole the used cooking oil is 20-year-old Steven Matos. Detectives say he first stole cooking oil from the American Grill in Exeter then an hour later, targeted the “B3Q’ Smokehouse in West Pittston.

“They will take it to any level to elude police. So that incident that we had when subject who was shortly apprehended afterward and is still going through the system was apprehended,” West Pittston Police Department Chief Michael Turner said.

It is used by biodiesel companies and can be converted for use in transportation, heating and cooking.

“It’s more of a intrusion. Someone coming onto your property and taking something,” American Grill co-owner Trista Cruz said. “The oil itself has little value to us personally. We get 30 cents on the gallon whereas we pay $1.25 to bring it in and use it. So what we get back is minimal.”

The oil is the lifeblood for companies like Buffalo Biodiesel. It collects the oil from many area restaurants and converts it into biofuel which they sell to refineries.

“Cooking oil thefts have been going on for sometime now, probably decades. But they are increasing in frequency and amount recently because of course the value of used cooking oil has gone up considerably. Not so much because of COVID, more from the re-entry of the United States into the Paris Accord for Carbon Emissions Reduction,” Buffalo Biodiesel Owner and President Sumit Majumdar said.

Majumdar says it’s a lucrative industry. But it’s being hijacked by the black market.

“These aren’t people who are stealing oil to make diesel fuel for their John Deere so that can plow their fields. These are gang members who are coming from New Jersey, from New York City to steal oil in upstate New York and Pennsylvania,” Majumdar said.

Oil thefts have taken place all across our region. The counties that have been targeted most frequently are Luzerne, Lackawanna, Carbon and Monroe Counties.

Majumdar tells the I-Team the thefts are greatly impacting legitimate oil collectors like his company. He doesn’t have oil to sell in part because of those stealing and re-selling the oil- on the black market

“I’m getting my door knocked on every day for material from everywhere. The U.K., from Germany, from Israel. You name it, anywhere and everywhere, we’re sold out,” Majumdar said.

Majumdar says thieves are being paid thousands of dollars for a typical theft and, based on his research, says in some cases, the thefts are inside jobs.

“The reality is they are not driving from one location. They got routes. Sophisticated. They know where they are producing material. They get tipped off. They are paying off restaurant employees. They let them know when they’re full,” Majumdar said.

Luzerne County District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce is working with the state attorney general’s office to investigate the cooking oil thefts.

“What immediately comes to mind is organized crime. I know it’s not typically we think of when we look at old movies and media reports considering organized crime, but in the sense that we have descriptions of the same vehicles, same M.O. All of the thefts seem to be committed the same way.” Sanuedolce said.

Sangedolce urges residents and business owners to be vigilant and if you see something, say something.

Majumdar tells the I-Team that he believes that investigators have to take a closer look at where big fuel companies are buying their oil. He insists, based on his information from oil industry insiders, that the number of thefts can be reduced, if not stopped by holding fuel companies accountable for where they purchase their oil.