• Center for Problem oriented policing

Responses to the Problem of Gasoline Drive-Offs

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors that contribute to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis.

In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. In some cases, the responsibility to respond may need to be shifted toward those who have the capacity to introduce more effective responses.†

† For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems. For further information on managing the implementation of response strategies, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 7, Implementing Responses to Problems.

This section reviews what is known about the effectiveness of various practices in dealing with gas drive-offs. The information is limited, because few of the common preventive practices have been thoroughly evaluated. Retailers have been reluctant to undertake the necessary studies and to share the results of any studies they do complete. The government has funded little research in this field, which is regarded as the private sector's domain.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

Police can do little on their own to prevent gas drive-offs, and you may have to persuade the retailers themselves to act. You may have to explain why police cannot achieve much through more patrols and arrests and why heavier court sentences can have a limited impact. You may want to explain how the store's practices may be contributing to the problem. You may have to convince owners and managers that they cannot ignore the problem, in light of the costs to the community and, in the long run, to the stores themselves. Finally, you will have to offer them guidance on preventive measures they can take to reduce the problem.

You will be helped in making your case if your state is among those which already have laws on the books regarding gasoline thefts. This will assist in dealing with the criticism that the courts are too lax in dealing with offenders. In most states it is a misdemeanor to drive off without paying for gasoline and will result in a fine and/or driver's license suspension.39 In addition, habitual offenders run the risk of being incarcerated.40 Even with such laws in place, however, a driver must first be found guilty of intentionally leaving the store without paying for the gasoline. To prove this requires a large investment in security cameras and equipment.41

In fact, few gasoline theft cases go to court. Most retailers are not interested in pursuing criminal prosecution because of the time, effort, and cost required. They prefer that police contact the vehicle owner to encourage payment. If this is unsuccessful, store managers can seek a settlement in a civil proceeding, which does not require police involvement. In reality, police agencies have to prioritize the deployment of their limited resources, and gas drive-offs are among the first offenses to be removed from the list of priorities in favor of addressing more serious crimes.42

In framing advice, you must think carefully about the nature of the risk, which varies greatly with the layout and practices of the retail outlet. These factors determine the nature of the remedies. In all cases, you must appreciate stores' need to make a profit. This determines selling practices and how much money is available for preventing shoplifting. Even when retailers can afford more security, they are likely to resist this expenditure. In making your case, you may need to do the following:

  • Help to calculate the likely cost of measures, such as installing CCTV or hiring security guards.
  • Convince owners/managers that they can recoup the cost of increased security by reducing losses associated with gas drive-offs.
  • Enlist the support of the chamber of commerce or other business organizations in persuading owners to improve security.
  • Dissuade owners/managers from relying on simplistic solutions, such as warnings about the consequences of gas theft.
  • Brief the local media on the problem and the proposed solutions.

Effective prevention depends on well-rounded strategies tailored to the nature of the site. These can be grouped under two main headings: (1) increasing the risks of gas drive-offs by improving surveillance, and (2) increasing the difficulties of gas drive-offs through use of technology and other means. Increasing the risks of crime and increasing its difficulties are well-validated components of Situational Crime Prevention.43

Specific Responses to Reduce Gas Drive-Offs

Increasing the Risks of Gasoline Drive-Offs by Improving Surveillance

Many ways exist to improve surveillance of the pumps and gas service area. Informal or natural surveillance can be improved to allow attendants to monitor customers more closely. Formal surveillance can be provided by security companies, which may offer trained personnel as store clerks or security guards. Mechanical surveillance can be provided through the use of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras and other electronic devices.

1. Increasing staff levels at peak times. More clerks might be needed during peak hours so they can adequately monitor the pumps. Fuel theft often occurs at the busiest times. Thieves may wait until their vehicle is hidden by a truck or position their vehicle in a way that hides the license plate.44 Gas stations with more visible staff will have fewer incidents, since thieves want to remain anonymous.45

2. Using an intercom to greet customers. An intercom is one of the most effective safety and security devices and is a low-tech means of removing anonymity.46 When customers are greeted through the intercom they know they have been seen, and a dialogue between the employee and the customer can start, even after the opening words as simple as: "Hi, how are you today?" During peak sales periods and single-staffed shifts, an intercom is often the only method of interacting with customers before they come into the store to pay for their gas.47

3. Providing employees with professional training. Companies should train theiremployees in the fine art of customer service as well as in noticing and properly reporting gasoline theft.48 Local police might also hold training for companies in strategies to prevent gas theft. The South Australia Police State Crime Prevention Branch has developed the ALERT strategy (Awareness, Line of sight, Eye contact, Registration, Telephone) to train station staff in recognizing and reporting gasoline drive-offs.ALERTunderscores the important role of store clerks in preventing gasoline theft.49 Other ways to increase surveillance are: (1) to subtract, or threaten to subtract the cost of the stolen gasoline from staff's pay on the assumption that the drive-off reports are a camouflage for embezzlement; (2) to pay staff small bonuses for detecting and reporting drive-offs.

4. Ensuring that the pump area is well-lit.† Proper lighting makes the site unattractive for thieves and makes customers feel safer. Metal halide light units are recommended; these provide better color rendition than other types of lighting and are compatible with CCTV systems.50 Exterior lighting should be protected with weather- and vandal-resistant coverings and have a light source that is directed downwards to minimize glare and intrusiveness.51 Switches for external lights should be located in a secure area within the store's office.52

† For further information about enhanced lighting, see Response Guide No. 8, Improving Street Lighting to Reduce Crime in Residential Areas.

A well-lit pump area may help reduce the risk of gas drive-offs
Photo Credit: Shutterstock #20633581

5. Making it easier for clerks to see the pumps. Posters and advertisements should not be placed on the store windows, to avoid obstructing the clerks' view of the pumps. Shrubs and hedges should not be higher than 3 feet, and all trees should be trimmed to a maximum height of 6 feet to help maintain a clear view around the site.53 This helps employees to note details of vehicles involved in drive-offs (make and model, color, marks on the vehicle—e.g., scratch on door, bumper dent), and the direction from which the vehicle arrived and departed.54 Pumps furthest away from the clerk's view might be "coned off" at times of minimum use, especially after dark.

6. Employing qualified security personnel. Security personnel can undertake surveillance and cooperate with police in enforcing the law. Security staff can be effective in deterring incidents, especially if they are on staff when crime analysis data show an increased trend of gas thefts in certain locations and at certain times.

7. Using closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras. Video surveillance has generally been found to more effectively deter crime in smaller, more private settings, rather than in city centers or public streets.† In addition, when a crime has been committed, CCTV systems on the premises can provide police with vital clues that lead to an arrest. However, the resulting images are often of low quality and therefore of limited use to police. Simple steps can be taken to improve the effectiveness of CCTV systems including the following:

  • Position cameras at the gasoline pumps
  • Post conspicuous signs indicating the premises are monitored by CCTV
  • Train all staff on procedures to follow when a crime occurs and how to act when police expect to see the surveillance shots
  • Adjust lights to aid CCTV and leave them on at night
  • Move from analog to digital audio/video recording
  • Consider networking with police
  • Incorporate license plate recognition (LPR) software that enables computer systems to automatically read vehicle license tags from digital footage‡

† For further information about CCTV, see Response Guide No. 4, Video Surveillance of Public Places.

‡ The effectiveness of license plate recognition can be compromised when thieves stand in front of their (real) plates to obscure the numbers or use stolen license tags on their cars to thwart identification by watching clerks or video cameras (Adams 2008). To deter the use of stolen tags, police recommend that motorists replace the screws holding the plate in place with 'clutch-head' screws which cannot be easily undone (Petrol Plaza News 2009a). The South Australia Police force has promoted the 'Plate Safe' program (South Australia Police 2009).

Even so, surveillance cameras are not always able to capture in detail a license tag because of its small size and varied placement on vehicles. Even with an individual camera devoted to each fueling point (somewhat expensive even today), it would be difficult to catch every tag.

8. Deploying interactive video monitoring (IVM). IVM is one of the newest security measures available to gasoline stations. It enables a control-room operator to monitor hundreds of cameras or a 24-hour central station to monitor thousands of sites in real-time.55 There are three main advantages to this new technology:

  • IVM cameras can be accessed online via any web-enabled device. Managers can view the company's security cameras in real-time from a home computer, a personal digital assistant, or a cell phone.
  • Two-way communications capabilities enable owners/managers to take action rather than passively sit back and watch events unfold.
  • IVM technology virtually eliminates law enforcement fees for responding to false alarms.56 

9. Using scan-data analysis. Some retail chains and some individual stores now make use of proprietary programs that analyze a store's scan data to reduce the incidence of gasoline drive-offs. Many of these programs are web-based and are capable of gathering and recording details of every transaction at the pumps. They can provide data about the time of day and the specific pumps from which drive-offs occur. On the basis of scan-data analyses conducted by in-house staff or consultants, the company's district managers and supervisors can help individual stores determine how to tackle any apparent problems. Scan-data analysis is expensive, but it is a far more way accurate way to record drive-offs than relying on employee reporting. One retail chain, Flash Foods, successfully used scan-data analysis to reduce gas drive-offs by identifying the particular pumps at individual stores that were most at risk and the times that they were at risk. When the chain required pre-payment on those specific pumps at the high-risk times, gas drive-offs reportedly dropped by 50 percent in one year.57

Increasing the Difficulty of Gasoline Drive-Offs

It was once easy to carry out gas drive-offs, but it is now much more difficult, because many service stations have pre-pay policies in place and use advanced technology that assists in identifying and convicting offenders.

10. Introducing a post-pay system. Many convenience store/gas station chains have adopted PumpStart, a pump-activation card that authorizes cash-paying customers to pump before they pay inside the store, thereby cutting minutes off the process of pumping and paying for gas. In addition, store owners feel that these customers are more likely to purchase food and other items if they come in to pay after they have pumped instead of before. These cards thus enhance the store's profitability.58 PumpStart is not a credit card; in fact, it is not a payment card at all, but a method of checking that the store has the customer's driver's license on file.59 Customers can sign up for the PumpStart card by showing a valid driver's license to the clerk. The store simply records the customer's license number and expiration date and issues the free PumpStart card. If the customer uses the card to start the pump and then drives off without paying, the store can immediately deactivate the card and turn the driver's license number over to police.60 This system has reportedly saved one chain $6 to $7 million in losses every year and reduced gas thefts by 95 percent.61

11. Imposing mandatory pre-pay. The simplest way to prevent people from driving off without paying is to require them to pay before pumping.62 When fuel thefts reach high rates, local officials can intervene by enacting an ordinance for mandatory pre-pay at the pump.63 Store owners may resist such ordinances, because pre-pay makes buying gas less convenient. Pre-pay customers might have to go inside the store to pay and they might have to go back inside to get money back if they do not have room in their tanks for all the gasoline they have purchased. Those who pay cash before pumping are less likely to purchase items inside the store, and having been inside once to pre-pay, they find it inconvenient to go back into the store to buy lottery tickets, beverages, food, or newspapers.64 Pre-payment can also hurt sales, because customers may prefer to go to another nearby retailer that does not require pre-pay.65 Consequently, retailers may require pre-pay only for certain pumps or during certain hours of business rather than require it all the time.  

A mandatory pre-pay system eliminates the need for the use of surveillance cameras or penalty warnings such as the ones pictured above.
Photo Credit: Michael Scott 

12. Installing pay-at-the-pump equipment. A reliable alternative to both pre-pay and post-pay policies is a 100 percent pay-at-the-pump system with cash acceptors in the gas pumps themselves. It is perhaps the most effective way to reduce gas drive-offs.66 The system requires customers to feed cash, a credit card, or a debit card into the pump before it will activate. The pump dispenses gas until the designated total is reached or the customer stops pumping.If change is due, the customer obtains it by bringing the receipt into the store.67 The system was designed to increase gas sales by offering more convenience to those customers who simply want to get gas and go, but it probably results in fewer in-store sales. However, it has the benefit of reducing stress on clerks, who no longer must watch the pumps while serving customers in the store.

13. Controlling access to fuel dispensers. As fuel dispenser and payment technology have advanced, offenders have refined their methods of stealing fuel. In response, some companies have adopted new pump security technologies that are designed to do the following:

  • Protect access to electronics. Fuel dispensers can be equipped with a strong door that can only be opened by unfastening multiple tamper-resistant screws. This makes it easy to prevent an unauthorized person trying to open the door.
  • Program security.Fuel dispensers can be provided with a password-controlled remote,which is typically stored away from the dispenserand available only to authorized technicians or site personnel.
  • Limit offline fueling access. Fuel dispensers can add another layer of security with a printer circuit board (PCB) device that connects two pins on the circuit board to enable stand-alone or offline fueling. Thieves cannot dispense fuel without the PCB device, which makes it difficult to access the fuel dispenser components unobserved or to change the price-per-unit setting.68 

While principally directed to preventing new forms of gasoline theft, this technology also makes it more difficult for gas drive-offs to be accomplished.

14. Reducing escape points from the site. This can be done byminimizingthe number of entrances and exits and reducing their width. In addition, perimeter fencing will reduce escape and entry points,69 particularly when fences are made of expanded metal, welded mesh, or paladin (not palisade or chain link fencing), and are at least 6 feet high. A Quickthorn or Hawthorn hedging planted adjacent to the fence will increase security, but shrubs, hedges, and bushes should be trimmed where they inhibit surveillance.70 Bollards and other obstacles can be used to ensure that drivers cannot "escape" by driving over sidewalks, grass verges, and the like. 

Responses with Limited Effectiveness

15. Discouraging gas theft through warnings. Warning signs placed on the pump stating: "Our car is faster than your car," meaning that police cars generally can move faster than other vehicles, in theory increases the risk of apprehension.71 In 2008 all gas retailing stations in one West Yorkshire, England, district participated in a "Name, Shame and Claim" campaign in which posters invited people to report gas thieves. It turned out that many people were reluctant to call the police, and the posters did not achieve the intended results.72 Extensive research has shown that publicity campaigns of this kind are of limited effectiveness.†

† For further information, see Response Guide No. 5, Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns.