High gasoline prices prompt more drive-offs

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Business Today

Filling up at the pump has become harder on the wallet in recent months. The spike in gas prices has caused some less-scrupulous citizens to resort to leaving the money in their pocket and making a quick get-away.

Ronald Leone, executive vice president for Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association (MPMCSA) was quick to answer when asked about the recent rise in drive-offs across the state.

"There is no doubt as to why it has increased. Drive-offs always increase when prices at the pump increase," Leone said. "There is a direct correlation."

The MPMCSA does not keep hard data on how many drive-offs occur in a given period, but data it has from 2000 shows the average gas station lost $3,000 per year due to stolen fuel. These losses have to be absorbed by someone with paying customers being the biggest bearer of the burden.

"It's a fairly substantial problem when you consider that $3,000 comes directly out of a small business owners pocket, or is passed on to consumers," Leone said. "People are really suffering the consequences of people's inability to pay for the product."

Citizens who do pay are asked to be aware and to help gas station owners catch drive-off offenders.

"We would like law-abiding citizens who view a drive-off to get involved and at least provide some information to help track down the offender," Leone said. "You have to remember that the cost of drive-offs are either coming out of profits, or they are passed on to law abiding citizens who pay. Everyone has a vested interest in minimizing drive-offs."

While vigilance and increased awareness on the part of consumers and gas station employees has helped, the MPMCSA has worked to make it less appealing to drive-off with a free tank of gas.

"We passed a very stringent law several years ago," Leone said. "If someone is convicted of stealing fuel, in addition to penalties associated with the theft, they will automatically lose their drivers license for a period of 30 days."

Leone said the suspension of a driver's license in Missouri is not up to the discretion of the judge. This is an automatic penalty. Second and third-time offenders face even lengthier license suspension periods.

While stealing fuel causes great losses, law enforcement agencies are often under-staffed and under-funded. This means more serious crimes usually take precedent.

"Unfortunately, fuel thefts are not a high priority for a lot of law enforcement," Leone said. "When you are talking about anywhere from $20 to $50 worth of product, it's not a very high priority when they are out there tackling violent crimes."

Gas station owners have become more vigilant against gas drive-offs. They are giving their employees more training and trying to make them more aware of customers.

"Often times when you pull up to the pump, the attendant will come on an intercom and welcome you to the pump," Leone said. "It kind of gives the consumer the idea that somebody is keeping an eye on things."

While stopping for a quick fill-up has become routine for most, Leone says unless drive-offs decrease in the near future, this may become a thing of the past.

"Station owners have the ability to go to 100 percent pre-pay," Leone said. "You won't be able to get a drop of fuel until you put in a credit card, or you walk in the store and lay down some money."

Leone said station owners do not want the business of selling gas to reach that point.

"That pretty much takes the convenience out of convenience store," Leone said

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