The fueling equivalent of “dine and dash” is becoming more and more frequent in central Maine, particularly at gas stations along Interstate 95 or busy tourist routes.
You could call it “pump and jump,” “gas and go,” or “fill and flee,” but by whatever name, the practice is costing vendors plenty.
Janie Blake, the manager at the A.E. Robinson Mobil Mart in Pittsfield, had two drive-offs on Sunday. “We usually get three to four a week, mostly at night,” she said, “and mostly $40 to $50 each.”
One drive-off Sunday was $40 while the other, oddly, was $5.32.
Blake said they occur on weekends, late in the day. “The thieves usually target my late-night people. They wait until they see a line in the store and the clerk is busy, and that’ s when they leave,” she said.
In Newport, which is the geographical convergence of Interstate 95, Routes 2, 11, 100 and 7, drive-offs have skyrocketed. Mobil on the Run, the closest station to Interstate 95, reported two drive-offs last weekend.
“In the last six months, we’ ve had a real problem,” Newport Police Chief Leonard Macdaid said Monday. “We used to get one a week and now we are getting five to six a week.”
To combat the problem, Macdaid said, many gas stations have sophisticated video equipment and also have switched to prepay systems. “We treat a call for a drive-off seriously, just like any other theft complaint,” Macdaid said. “But in some cases, it turns out to be a mistake. Some people honestly think they paid or someone else in the car paid.”
Scott Hanscom at Mobil on the Run on busy Route 1 in Machias said he switched to prepay on the three pumps at the outside islands and that seems to have eliminated the problem for him. “We were getting several drive-offs a week, at $100 to $150 each time,” Hanscom said.
“The problem was a big truck or a camper would pull up and we weren’ t able to see the outside pumps,” Hanscom said.
But he agreed with Macdaid that many of the drive-offs are honest mistakes.
“It used to be that you went to a gas station and got gas,” he said. “Now you can order a pizza, read the paper, do your shopping and go to the ATM. By the time you’ re finished, you forget you’ ve bought gas.”
Gasoline theft tends to be a problem in densely populated metropolitan areas and near interstates where there’ s greater anonymity. In such areas, according to industry monitors, retailers have reported losses as much as $1,500 a store in a month.
At stores in small communities where everyone tends to know one another, the problem generally is not as significant.
Gas pump theft was a $134 million industry problem in 2007 and is significantly worse already in 2008, Jeff Lenard with the National Association of Convenience Stores said Monday.
“Gasoline price volatility traditionally leads to a significant increase in gasoline theft, brought on by misdirected consumer anger at higher prices,” according to Lenard.
“With convenience stores reporting total motor fuels sales of $408.9 billion in 2007, that means that, on average, one in every 3,300 fill-ups was gasoline theft. “While this is not a conga line of theft, at two cents per gallon profit, at best, a retailer would need to sell an extra 3,000 gallons to offset each $60 stolen,” Lenard said.
That pales in comparison to the story of Husain Caddi, 54, who was run over and killed when he tried to stop a man from driving off without paying at the Texas station Caddi operated. The gas bill was $52.05.
Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine State Police, said that after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when gas originally began spiking in price, drive-offs began increasing.
“But that is when the vast majority of gas stations switched to prepay,” he said. He said that it was his sense that small, rural stations that have not made the changeover to prepay pumps are the ones getting hit the hardest.
These small stations are operating on a tiny margin and often make as much, or more, from the sale of a 12-ounce cup of coffee as from a 12-gallon fill-up. A $50 theft can wipe out a retailer’ s entire daily gasoline profits.
The solution may lie in technology.
A fuel nozzle that locks in place in a vehicle’ s filler pipe until the customer pays is nearly ready for national marketing, and other technologies already are being used, such as requiring cash customers to use their driver’ s licenses at the pump to authorize dispensing.
The personal information on the license is read by the pump and some states using this program report gasoline theft was reduced to a trickle.
The simplest solution is one that many stations have adopted: mandated prepaying.
But it comes at a cost.
“Requiring customers to prepay for their fuel would virtually eliminate the problem of gasoline theft,” Lenard said. “However, consumers, wanting convenience, will usually choose to go to another retailer that does not require prepay if one is close.”
Besides the risk of losing customers, retailers usually elect to require prepay as a last resort, since generally customers will underestimate their gasoline purchases because they don’ t want to have to go back in the store for change, Lenard said. “There also are concerns that mandating prepay could lead to cash customers instead paying by credit card at the pump to avoid the inconvenience of prepay. Since credit card fees are 2.5 percent to 3 percent, that means that retailers could incur an additional 10 to 12 cents per gallon in fees when gasoline is $3 per gallon. Usually, retailers will look at requiring prepay for certain pumps or certain hours before requiring it all the time at a store.”
Some cities, reacting to the theft of gas, have enacted ordinances mandating retailers to require prepay, and some states have passed laws to prosecute gas thieves.
As of June 2005, 27 states passed laws in which a judge has the discretion to suspend the driver’ s license of someone convicted of gas theft, Lenard said. Connecticut is the only New England state that has such a law.