Petrol stretching: ‘Revenue aren’t doing enough about this at all’

Thomas Coleman with his BMW as smoke billows from the engine. The car is now ruined after being filled with bad petrol. He said 'It's frustrating — we've done nothing wrong but we're out of pocket.' Picture: Ray Ryan

‘Petrol stretching’ is on the rise in Ireland, with thousands of euros worth of damage being done to cars every week.

So far this year, Revenue has received 90 complaints about contaminated fuel, although a local community group contests this figure. They say the problem is far worse than this number suggests.

According to a Revenue spokesperson, the majority of complaints have been reported in the last three months and largely concern the Borders and Midlands West regions.

Petrol stretching involves adding kerosene to petrol before selling it to unwitting drivers.

Contaminated petrol can be up to 20% of kerosene, sometimes with a further 5% of methanol.

Kerosene, which is used as a fuel for heating, is widely available for as little as 80c per litre, as opposed to petrol which is close to double that at €1.55.

The practice does serious damage cars to such an extent that engine pistons melt and end up coated in carbon, leaving the driver with repair bills of around €5,000.

Last week, a meeting for victims of petrol stretching in Mayo attracted over 400 attendees.

The gathering was organised with help from the group Petrol Stretching Victims Ireland which was set up at the start of the month. So far, it has almost 300 members.

Susan Doran, one of the founders of the group, said: “This problem is a lot bigger than the authorities are making it out to be. You just have to look at the amount of people in our group and the amount of people going to meetings to realise that.

“Revenue aren’t doing enough about this at all”.

Susan has first-hand experience of petrol stretching, after her car, which she is still paying for, began to fail two months ago. She has since been driving her brother’s car and is trying to get money from her insurance.

She said: “If you have fully comprehensive insurance then you should be covered, that’s the bottom line. But I’ve had seven weeks of hell with my insurer because they say they won’t cover it. You pay your insurance and expect to be looked after and then something actually happens and they treat you like dirt.”

Tom Coleman, who was at the meeting last week, said people were “extremely angry” about the situation and feel they are not being heard.

He said: “People stood up and were shouting at some of the politicians present and at the representative from Customs. It’s frustrating — we’ve done nothing wrong but we’re out of pocket.”

Tom is also a victim of petrol stretching. His car began to act up a few months ago and, after visiting a mechanic, found his engine had been ruined because of contaminated petrol and was no longer safe to drive.

His insurance company also refused to cover the cost of the damage.

Tom said: “I paid €2,000 for that car and it’s vital for my business as I need it to travel all over the West. I don’t have money for another car, yet how can I earn money if I can’t travel?”

Many insurance companies that used to cover engine and associated damage resulting from contaminated fuel now exclude it in their policies.

These insurers have suggested customers with engines damaged by contaminated fuel should seek compensation from the retailers that sold them the fuel.

Petrol stretching is an offence under S102(1A) Finance Act 1999 and carries a penalty on summary conviction of €5,000 and/or up 12 months in prison. If convicted on indictment, the fine is a maximum of €126,970 and/or up to five years imprisonment.

According to Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, Revenue Commissioners, Customs and Excise and gardaí are currently investigating the problem.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan described it as a “matter of serious concern” and urged people to report any suspicions they have concerning adulterated petrol to Revenue.

He said the practice poses risks to the exchequer, threatens legitimate businesses and damages the vehicles of unsuspecting purchasers of adulterated fuel.

THE SIGNS

Common indicators of petrol stretching:

- A lack of power.

- The engine keeps misfiring.

- A low knocking sound.

- Trouble starting the engine.

- Excessive crank case pressure.

Spike in cases: Bad petrol destroys family’s two cars

In August, Mayo woman Sylvia Spain noticed a knocking sound coming from the engine of her car — a 2006 Ford Focus she purchased in June.

The condition of the car deteriorated rapidly in the coming weeks and was having trouble starting.

When the mother-of-six brought it to a mechanic, she was told there was a problem with the engine and to bring it back to where she had bought it so they could have a look at it.

In the meantime, Sylvia began driving her old car, a 1997 people carrier, which she hadn’t yet got rid of. That car also began to present with a strange knocking noise.

Sylvia said: “It had never failed an NCT in the eight years I had it. I was told in June after it passed its NCT that the car was in great shape and would last years, but on September 19 as I went to collect my youngest from school it started and died,” she said.

When she contacted her insurer, she was told her cover did not include fuel contamination.

The company subsequently sent out an assessor, however, who confirmed the cars had petrol damage and did then agree to cover a portion of the costs. Sylvia said: “This has put a huge strain on our finances”.

She also revealed how widespread the problem is becoming, especially in the west of Ireland, and believes as many as 50 cars have been affected in her area alone.

She said: “The owners of the garage I purchased my fuel from also own at least five other stations in the west — three of them have been accused of petrol stretching. I contacted the suppliers of the fuel and they told me they were the sole suppliers to the garage. I also contacted the director of the company who owned the garage but he never answered or replied.

“The garage manager was apologetic and said several customers were affected but that they weren’t involved.” Sylvia has reported the matter to the gardaí and to customs.

Loan just paid: Shauna left €5,000 out of pocket

Shauna Scott, also from Mayo, believes she bought contaminated petrol from the same filling station as Sylvia Spain. The single mother had just finished paying off a €5,000 car loan when her vehicle began to give trouble.

When she brought it to a mechanic, he concluded she had been the victim of petrol stretching. At the time, there were five or six other cars in the garage with the same problem and a further five or six suspected.

After contacting her insurance company, Shauna was told the damage was not covered under her current policy.

She said: “I was completely stuck and got so stressed about it all. I had no savings so basically my car that I just paid off the loan for was going to completely fail and lose every cent I paid”.

When Shauna went to the garda station to report the incident, she ran into three other people doing the same thing.

Shauna’s sister also purchased contaminated petrol and is out of pocket over €7,000 because of it.

Shauna said: “From here I don’t know where it will go. I just know I cannot afford this and it is not my fault and now my four-year-old daughter won’t get the Christmas she deserves.

“We shouldn’t be made pay for someone else’s criminal acts.”

Insurance cover: ‘We can’t afford to repair or replace our car’

Petrol stretching: ‘Revenue aren’t doing enough about this at all’

Brian Machin: Car useless because of stretched fuel.

Last year Brian Machin moved to Virginia, Co Cavan from the UK. His wife brought her 2003 Lexus with them. After purchasing their fuel at the same filling station for a year with no trouble, the car started acting up last month.

After spending over €100 on repairs the problems kept occurring until the car refused to start at all. Their mechanic told them they must have purchased contaminated fuel which had caused decompression in all six cylinders.

The insurance said they will not cover it. Brian said: “So for now we have this car that is of no use, we can’t afford to repair it or replace it and the only thing for it would be to scrap it.”

He also revealed he is trying to contact the owner of the petrol station that sold him the contaminated fuel but the man is not answering his phone.

“I talked to a local solicitor who told me it was a small claims case as the cost to fit a second-hand engine would be less than €2,000. If I was claiming for more I’d need the solicitor. We can’t afford solicitor’s bills at the minute so haven’t pursued that avenue any more,” he said.

To add insult to injury, Brian’s relatively new lawnmower is also affected as they used petrol from the same station for it. It will cost €400 to replace. He reported the petrol stretching to the gardaí but has not heard anything about the case as of yet.


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