Rising gas prices mean more thievery at pumps
BY SAEED AHMED Cox News Service | June 05,2005
As hard as it is to believe, your local convenience store owner is as relieved as you are when gas prices are falling.
Because when prices go up — as they have to record levels this year — so do drive-offs: motorists who squeal away from the pump without paying.
Since convenience stores make a profit of only 2 to 3 cents per gallon of gas pumped, owners say they have to sell an extra 3,000 gallons to make up for every sport-utility vehicle that takes off with a $30 tank of gas.
"People try to justify it in so many ways: 'Oh, we're just stealing back from guys who are getting rich by overcharging us,'" said Murad Ali, who estimates that his Phillips 66 store here has lost $100 to $150 a week on drive-offs this year.
"The reality is, they're not hurting the oil companies. They're hurting us small-business owners."
Some store owners say they see people driving away with their profits three to four times a week.
About 75 percent of gas sales in the country are made at convenience stores, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores. Last year, the industry lost $237 million to drive-offs, according to the group.
Although that's far lower than the rash of thefts during the gas shortages of the 1970s, the loss still averaged $2,141 for each of the approximately 106,000 stores in the country.
Those who gas and dash come in all stripes, store owners say: business executive types in their Acuras, even soccer moms in their station wagons.
"We had this one guy, a real elderly man in his 60s, and we thought, 'He's not going anywhere,"' said Mike Welsh, who runs an Exxon store. "Sure enough, after he filled up, off he went. When we ran out to get the tag number, he'd taped a piece of paper over part of it."
Seven years ago, Georgia became the first of 25 states to pass a law that suspends the driver's licenses of people convicted of gas theft.
Stickers posted at many of the state's 5,900 convenience stores show a stern-faced trooper's warning: "So think before you pump or you could be walking."
But enforcement has been weak. So far, only 13 people have had their licenses suspended, according to the Department of Motor Vehicle Safety.
Part of the reason is that a license confiscation requires two convictions — difficult to get when arrests are so rare. Police claim stores don't report the crime; owners claim authorities don't adequately follow through.
"I've jumped in my car and run after them," said Sammy Abdullahi, who works at a BP station. "I just want my money."
Most feign forgetfulness when caught and pony up the cash, Abdullahi said.
Stores began seeing a rise in drive-offs in February, when prices went up with the switch from winter-blend to summer-blend gasoline. It's been especially acute this year, when gasoline prices hit all-time highs, with the average peaking at $2.20 per gallon for regular in Georgia and 7 cents higher nationally.
Most drive-offs take place when the store is crowded; say, when lottery numbers come in. Culprits park at the farthest bay from the cash register, or leave the pump handle on the ground so the clerk can't tell when they are done filling up.
Stations can wipe out drive-off thefts simply by mandating that all purchases be prepaid. Last year, Mount Pleasant, S.C., became one of the first cities to require prepayment. Macon, Ga.'s new police chief told the Macon Telegraph last week that he supports the idea and will lobby the City Council to pass such an ordinance.
But prepayment yields another set of problems, said Jim Tudor, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores. Stores make two-thirds of their money from selling you that candy bar or pack of cigarettes. Paying at the pump takes away the need for a driver to set foot inside the store.
Also, more than 70 percent of all gas purchases are now paid with plastic. Processing fees of up to 3 percent for credit cards eat away at the already low profit margin for stores, owners complain.
Still, change may be the only way for some stores to remain in business.
After months of losing money to drive-offs, Welsh, the Exxon store owner, switched to a prepay system for all but his regular customers six weeks ago.
"I've been in this business for 26 years and I held out for 25," he sighed. "I'm throwing up my hands."