As prices climb, more drivers flee pumps without paying

More gas stations are making prepaying mandatory to cut down on thievery, which last year added up to $237 million.

Call it theft to obtain octane.

As gasoline prices stay well above $2 per gallon, gasoline station owners are increasingly encountering customers who pump but don't pay.

The rising theft rates are yet one more sign of consumer frustration over the relatively high price of topping up their tank. Only five years ago, it cost $24 to fill up a 20-gallon tank. Today, it costs $46. For many low-income people, the increase is more than they can manage.

But high prices are provoking not just those struggling to make basic ends meet.

Some thieves who are driving away from $30 tabs are doing so in $20,000 late-model SUVs. Unpaid bills can also be for $50 fill-ups, which suggests that drivers are going as far as completely filling up their tanks instead of just taking the few gallons they need to get home.

"Given the demographics that we hear about, this is a crime driven more by anger than economics," says Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores. "The consequence of these prices rising is that drivers blame the guys who are least responsible, who have been hit harder than the customers."

Last year, when gasoline prices were lower, drive-offs cost the nation's gas stations $237 million. And with gasoline prices climbing steadily - average pump prices nationwide are almost $2.32 - some analysts say that number could be even higher this year.

The problem is driving some states to implement strict new penalties. On Aug. 1, Iowa and Minnesota will join 25 other states in allowing judges to suspend the driver's licenses of those caught driving off without paying. Fines have been raised for gasoline thieves in Oklahoma and Virginia. And starting this summer, car owners in South Dakota are liable for any stolen gas pumped into their tanks, even if they aren't in the car.

But Ralph Bombardiere, executive director of the New York State Association of Service Stations and Repair Shops, points out that penalties are only a deterrent. Many stations don't even notice the thefts until tallies are made at the end of shifts, and there is no way to keep a sharp eye on cars with suspicious drivers.

"All they have to do is not get caught until they reach the next exit. It's just too easy," Mr. Bombardiere says.

As a result, more gas stations are offering prepay as the only option for buying gas so that stations can more effectively control the gas passing through pumps.

There are profit-margin downsides to mandating prepay, however. Higher gas prices are prompting more customers to prepay by using credit cards outside at the pump. Not only does that mean fewer customers are going inside the convenience stores to pay with cash, and possibly buy a newspaper or candy bar with their fill ups, but credit card companies charge gas stations processing fees.

But some localities insist enforcing mandatory prepay will be more cost-effective in the long run.

"The police department was spending an inordinate amount of time on issues involving gasoline theft," says Tom Courtney, city manager of Twin Falls, Idaho, which passed a prepay only ordinance last November. "Like most police departments, they were extremely busy with other more pressing issues. The opportunity to basically eliminate a category of crime by passing a law requiring prepayment was very attractive."

In Twin Falls it was the gas station owners themselves who had made the suggestion to the city council, while other stations across the nation are exploring other alternatives.

Some are trying to improve the appearance of security, installing intercoms at the pumps through which workers inside can greet drivers as they pull in.

"To a regular customer, it says, 'Good morning,' " Lenard says. "To a prospective thief, it says, 'We're watching you.' "

Franchises or stations with returning customers are also experimenting with versions of the PumpStart card, used by QuikTrip in Oklahoma. Drivers can still post-pay with cash as long as they register for the card, which records their license number as they swipe before pumping.

Mustafa Serdar, manager of a service station on the Upper East side of Manhattan, says that prepay is still the easiest way for him to prevent theft.

Even though Mr. Serdar says he has seen few drive-offs at his BP station, where drivers can fill up for $2.69 a gallon before hitting FDR Drive, he does recall an incident in January when prices started to rise. "It was a very busy time, so I guess he took advantage of that," he says. "We couldn't notice." The computer notified him of the theft within minutes, but at that point there was little he could do."We just put it in the loss column," he says.

Serdar was prepared to add another loss last month when an absent-minded taxi driver pulled away without paying. But the next day the driver returned to pay his bill - $50 to fill up his tank.

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