COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Why are criminals stealing used cooking oil from restaurants across central Ohio and elsewhere?

Sumit Majumdar, the president of Buffalo Biodiesel, said the crime has cost his company millions of dollars.

“It’s ballooning. It’s wiping out a third of our business,” Majumdar said. “To put that into numbers: $10 million to $15 million a year.”

Buffalo Biodiesel provides thousands of restaurants across 12 states with containers to dispose of used cooking grease. The company then collects the grease and processes it to manufacture biofuels. But as fuel has become pricier over the past year, grease has become a more valuable commodity.

Sometimes, company drivers will arrive to collect the grease only to find the container has been emptied already.

Majumdar said he’s dealt with grease thefts in mid-Atlantic states — such as New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — for several years, but he said he’s noticed more Ohio incidents in recent months.

In October, he reported thefts at an Ohio restaurant in Newark and another in Pataskala.

“They’ll aggregate that oil and sell it through a broker, so that way, it’s kind of washed. And it’ll go off to a refinery, and they’re making a lot of money,” Majumdar said.

Cooking oil theft is not a new crime. The National Renderers Association has estimated that up to $75 million worth of old cooking grease is stolen each year, The Washington Post reported in 2019.

The Post reported that rendering companies pay restaurants a fee to haul away their used cooking grease, which they then recycle and sell for components used in products such as biofuel, animal feed or fats used in perfume.

Alex Behnen, commander of the property crimes unit at the Columbus Division of Police in Ohio, said that while these thefts have been reported, he doesn’t believe they are on the rise — just that they go underreported.

“The used cooking oil is taken by the restaurant operator, put in a tank in the back of their building and then collected most times by a third party once a month,” Behnen said. “There could be quite a bit of time that they may not notice their grease is gone.”

Grease thefts can also be difficult to investigate, he said.

“Obviously it’s a liquid. It doesn’t have a serial number,” he said. “Most of the smaller restaurants that we do hear are having issues with this, they generally don’t have a security camera or really good lighting on those tanks where they place that grease.”

Behnen said legitimate collectors of used cooking oil typically arrive during regular business hours in large tanker-type trucks with drivers in uniforms.

“Almost certainly if it’s after hours — small vehicles, panel vans — it almost certainly likely is not legitimate, and they should call the police,” he said in advice to businesses.