Internet urban legend warns of a criminal ploy to disable women's vehicles by pouring sugar water in their gas tanks. Does this trick really work?
Description: Urban legend
Circulating since: Oct. 2005 (this version)
Status: Dubious (see details below)
Email contributed by Lisa L., Oct. 14, 2005:
Subject: Warning....be alert!
Thought this might be worth passing on.
Subject: FW: Warning....be alert! Target in Olathe.
I just wanted to let you all know of something that happened to me today in the Target parking lot. be aware of this and let everyone you know aware so this does not happen to anyone else. I was at Target today to return something which only took a couple of minutes. when I pulled into the parking lot a man in a car pulled in a couple spaces down from me. he started to go into the store about the same time as I did, then turned back around and went back to his car. I went into Target returned my items and walked back out to get into my car. when I walked out, he was walking away from my car carrying a small gas can. I noticed there was fluid on the side of my car and a puddle beside it. I got into my car not sure of what happened, wrote down his license plate # and left. He followed me out of the parking lot and onto 169. I was only able to drive about a half a mile and my car started acting funny. It died on me as I was driving and I was able to pull into an area business along the highway. I just sat in my car and called the police. The man drove by three times as I waited. The police who came took a report and said that he had poured sugar water into my gas tank which is what made my car stall. It was a great way to get a woman by herself to be stranded on the streets. Luckily for me I was able to stop where there were people around. The police know where the car came from and are working on this now. Not sure what will happen but my car is now in the shop not running, but it could have been much worse for me. Just be aware that this is happening and always be aware of your surroundings. It certainly scared me and I am grateful that nothing else happened.
Analysis: While it's not 100 percent beyond the realm of possibility, the incident described above seems unlikely to have happened given the haphazard nature of the ploy involved.
Putting sugar or water in the gas tank of a vehicle can indeed cause the engine to stall: sugar, because the granules won't dissolve in gasoline and may clog the fuel filter; water, because it interrupts combustion -- but neither method will produce a predictably-timed engine failure. Depending on the quantity of the foreign substance introduced, it might take minutes, hours, or even days for the stall to occur, if it occurs at all.
The same would hold true if the foreign substance was a sugar-water mixture. Dissolved in water, the sugar's effect would be negligible, so it's essentially no different than pouring plain H2O in the gas tank.
The point is, the evildoer who plans to use this method to waylay his victim in a conveniently secluded spot is leaving an awful lot to chance, and, more likely than not, will fail. Which makes it unlikely that such a ploy is often used.
From Kansas to Texas to North Carolina
It may seem strange, then, to find email reports of incidents matching this exact description happening in Target store parking lots everywhere from Kansas to Texas to North Carolina. But it's not so strange when you consider that this forwarded message has been circulating non-stop since 2005, accruing "helpful" bits of misinformation along the way. In this respect the text fulfills the classic definition of what folklorists call a "migratory legend," with individuals revising specific details to localize the tale before passing it along.
At the same time, the story has inspired skeptical news coverage in some cities based on disavowals by local police. “It’s not happening in Hickory," police captain Clyde Deal told the Hickory, NC Daily Record after the email surfaced there in March 2007. “As far as we can tell, it’s not happening anywhere in western North Carolina.” Assistant police chief Mike Samp of Mishawaka, Indiana, gave a similar response to the South Bend Tribune: "We researched it and could find no police report, which quite naturally, made us suspicious." Police in Wheeling, Ohio simply dismissed it as a hoax.
Another close call
Sifting through my email archives, I discovered a variant of this story dating from November 2002 in which a perpetrator who disables a woman's car with sugar water is captured by police and found to have an array of kidnapping implements hidden in his van.