Higher prices fueling drive-offs

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 13, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

As gas prices continue to climb, so will the number of people who drive off from gas stations without paying for fuel purchases, said police.

Officer John Lane said he is spending a growing amount of time responding to &uot;gas drive-offs,&uot; a problem he anticipates will continue as long as fuel prices stay at record high levels.


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On Thursday, Lane was at the Shell Food Mart at Military Road and West Washington Street, taking a gas drive-off report from employee Tina Pitts when dispatchers began requesting an officer go to a Carolina Road gas station to investigate another drive-off.

According to Sgt. Sandy Gilluly, from April 1 to May 24, the number of gas drive-offs was up to 65 – and that’s only the number of the reported thefts. Because the drive-offs are happening so often and suspects are so difficult to catch, a lot of gas stations don’t even bother making reports anymore, she said.

&uot;No telling how many went unreported. It’s $10 here, $20 there.&uot; she added. &uot;That may not sound like much, but the total value of all that stolen gas is an increase of 41.3 percent increase over the number of reported gas drive offs during the same time period last year.

&uot;While $1,449 may not sound like a lot, think of it in cities across the nation. Losses like that are bound to make prices go even higher with the station owners trying to recover some of their losses.&uot;

Like his colleagues, Officer Karl Adams says he is spending more time than ever writing up gas thefts.

&uot;It’s just getting worse and worse every day,&uot; said Adams. &uot;They just fill up their tanks, jump in their vehicles and take off. Sometimes, an employee can get a license plate number or describe the vehicle or driver so that we’ve been able to apprehend some of the suspects.&uot;

Pitts said she has seen it time and time again – someone pulls up, pumps a tank of gas and drives away without paying.

&uot;They usually go to the outside pumps where they think you can’t get their tag number,&uot; she said. &uot;They pump gas and back straight back out into the street where it’s harder to see their tag number.&uot;

If store clerks act fast enough in reporting the gas thefts, police who are patrolling the roads can keep a watch for a specific tag number and car description – and possibly make an arrest, Lane said.

People who drive off without paying for fuel face a misdemeanor charge on their first conviction. If convicted a second time, the driver’s license can be taken away and in some cases, result in jail time.

Gilluly said she would like to see all stations return to having customers pre-pay for their gas. She added that it’s no different from any other shoplifting charge – its petty theft, but not until everyone goes to pre-pay will the problem by solved.

&uot;I know it would be a bit of an inconvenience for the honest customers, but in the long run, they would benefit from pre-paying,&uot; she said. &uot;It’s the honest customer who ends up paying the higher prices that in some small part come from the gas thefts as well as the current rise in prices from the oil companies. We would all benefit from pre-paying.&uot;

Deanna Anderson, a cashier at the Sentry store for almost six years, said customers that are unfamiliar to her must pre-pay.

&uot;I love my customers and always enjoy meeting new customers, but if we don’t know you, we won’t turn the pumps on until you come in to pay,&uot; said Anderson. &uot;Pumps four, five and six are always pre-pay. Also, having our cash registers near the windows gives us a good view of the pumps. That helps.&uot;

Gilluly and Lane as well as other officers have advised convenience store clerks to pay close attention to customers approaching the gas pumps.

&uot;Make yourself aware of patterns, such as the thefts occurring at the same time of day,&uot; said Gilluly. &uot;You should be particularly alert during that time. If your losses are large enough to justify it, put an employee at the pumps during peak periods to assist customers and keep a watchful eye out.&uot;

Lane also noted that the Sentry Food Mart where Anderson and Pitts work is set up so that the clerks have full view of the pumps, something that sometimes deters thieves, he said.

Gilluly also said some customers go into stations, pay for a small amount of gas and pump a tank full into their vehicle. She said station employees could stop that by pre-setting the controls on the pump.

&uot;Also, it is best to make sure you have plenty of nighttime lighting at the pumps,&uot; she said. &uot;The more light there is over the pumps at night, the less likely the thief is to come to your station.&uot;

Also, when customers come into the station requesting information or directions to a particular location, employees should be alert to outside activities, Gilluly said. In some instances, those questions are simply diversionary tactics, she added.

Although security cameras around gas pumps could help catch the thieves, many stores can’t afford them, she said many stores can’t afford them.

Anyone who witnesses a gas drive-off is asked to call Suffolk Crime Line at 1-888-LOCK-U-UP.