Rising gasoline prices result in more fuel theft

Katie Phillips

Escalating gas prices are fueling a mini-crime wave and forcing stations to pump up security as motorists fill up their tanks and flee without paying.

As soaring prices hit the $3-a-gallon-mark, first with rising oil costs and then the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the number of drive-offs increased – and customers’ frustration did as well.

Gasoline thefts cost the industry $237 million nationwide in 2004, and losses will continue to surge, said Brad Proctor, founder of GasPriceWatch.com, a Web site devoted to helping motorists find the cheapest gas in their area.

“We’re scheduled, prior to the $3-price, to lose $500 million (because of drive-offs), but it’s going to be much higher than that,” he said. “It’s going to go up significantly.”

The frustration is often misdirected at the retailers, which is then aimed at gas thefts, said Jeff Lenard, director of communications for the National Association of Convenience Stores.

“Margins are tight; credit card fees are on the rise, and there’s an increase in gas theft,” Lenard said. “There’s frustration all around the pump from those buying the gas, and those selling the gas.”

“It’s not a good time for either of them.”

Retailers are as frustrated as customers, said Linda Casey, spokesperson for Speedway SuperAmerica.

“The important message is the psychological difference in people’s minds between shoplifting and drive-offs,” Casey said. “But they’re both stealing, and they are the same. Those of us who are honest people and pay for our goods end up covering the loss from those who steal it.”

Tactics pump pirates use vary; strategies include covering up license plate numbers to conceal identification, switching license plates, or filling up and placing the nozzle on the ground, leaving the clerk unaware that the motorist is finished pumping.

The fill-and-flee strategy, which is deemed the most common, is considered petty theft and may result in a fine of $1,000, six months in jail and license suspension of six months, said Chief James Peach, of the Kent Police Department.

Gas thefts drive stations to use prepay pumps in order to protect their investment, but it is an idea that was never before pushed in the industry, said Roger Dreyer, president of the Ohio Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.

As prepay becomes increasingly frequent, retailers see less traffic of customers inside their stores.

“Gas customers will buy less gas when they are required to prepay because they underestimate their gas purchase,” Lenard said. “After they’ve filled up their tanks, they go about their business. They don’t want to pull over and go in the store.”

Money is not made at the pump but in the store, so gas thefts threaten all involved, Lenard said.

The highest U.S. gas price yesterday was $4.29 in Lanai City, Hawaii, while the lowest price was $2.39 in Baton Rouge, La. The national average yesterday was $2.87, according to GasPriceWatch.com.

Contact public affairs reporter Katie Phillips at [email protected]