The Problem of Gasoline Drive-Offs
What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover
This guide deals with "gas drive-offs"—a form of theft in which motorists intentionally drive away from a convenience store or gasoline service station without paying for gas they have pumped into their vehicle's tanks. The guide reviews factors that are correlated with an increased risk of this crime. It also covers employee theft related to gas sales; for example, when attendants make false reports of drive-offs and pocket the money the driver paid. The guide then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local gas drive-off problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about these from research and police practice.
The number of gas drive-offs nationwide has declined sharply in recent years, progress which has been brought about by improved video surveillance and the introduction of pre-payment at many convenience stores and service stations. However, the danger of high-speed escapes continues to pose a serious problem. There is an ongoing need, therefore, for police to deal with gas drive-offs. This guide provides information that will help you choose among the different forms of video equipment and pre-pay systems. These have different costs and benefits, rendering them more or less suitable for particular local problems.
While gasoline drive-offs are but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to thefts from commercial establishments, this guide is limited to addressing the particular harms resulting from gasoline drive-offs. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which requires separate analysis, include the following:
- Robbery of convenience stores
- Fraudulent return of retail merchandise
- Burglary of retail establishments
- Check and card fraud
Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.
While this guide does not deal directly with other kinds of gasoline theft, some of the measures to reduce gas drive-offs will also reduce the opportunities for these sister crimes. These forms of theft include the following:
- Manipulating the security system on pumps. For example, after prepaying a few dollars' worth of gas, some offenders have learned how to keep the pump operating beyond the amount paid for.
- Posing as maintenance personnel and tapping a pump's metering system to release fuel.
- Stealing directly from the underground tanks at service stations: a driver positions a truck with a hole drilled in its floor over the tank, pries off the tank cover, and inserts a pump that can gulp hundreds of gallons. This is highly dangerous, because the absence of an effective vapor recovery system means one small spark could ignite a blaze.1
- Using a van or other large vehicle to shield a smaller vehicle from the attendants' view. Several gallons of fuel are siphoned from the gas pump into the smaller vehicle's tank, the pump meter is reset, and then fueling is completed. The offender then pays for the small amount registered on the meter.
- Working as a pair, one offender distracts the attendant through purchases or conversation, while his or her accomplice at the pump fills the vehicle's tank and drives away.2
General Description of the Problem
Retail Fueling Establishments in the United States
There were nearly 160,000 retail fueling establishments in the United States in 2010. This is a marked decline compared to 1994, when the station count topped 200,000.3 At the end of 2010, about three-quarters of these retail outlets were convenience stores selling motor fuel; the rest were mostly conventional gasoline stations, with or without limited items for sale.4 Approximately 80 percent of the fuel sold at retail in the United States is dispensed by convenience stores,5 58 percent of which are one-store operations. The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) estimates that today less than 2 percent of all of these gas-selling convenience stores are owned and operated by major oil companies, of which only two (Chevron Texaco and Shell) are still committed to sell fuel at the retail level; however, many stations do have contracts to sell a specific brand of fuel.6 These "branded" outlets benefit from marketing and advertising support from the oil company, consumer brand loyalty, and precedence in getting access to gas supplies. In return, the branded outlets pay a surcharge for the use of the brand and the benefits that come with it.7
The Extent of the Problem of Gasoline Drive-Offs
Gasoline drive-offs have gained widespread attention over the past 30 years, and states have responded with stiffer penalties for "pump-and-run pirates." Gas drive-offs plague both gas service stations and combined convenience stores-gasoline stations, but the latter account for most of the incidents, partly because they sell most of the gasoline purchased in the United States. 8 While gas drive-offs are increasingly being brought under control, an extensive problem continues to exist. Some convenience stores still experience two or three gasoline thefts a week at a cost of approximately $50 per incident.9 When a large vehicle is involved the loss from just one gas theft can easily top $100.10 Between 2005 and 2009 the total cost of gasoline drive-offs at convenience stores fell sharply from $300 million to $89 million.11 This drop has been attributed to the installation of better video equipment and the introduction of pre-payment at many convenience stores.
Stealing by employees contributes to the gasoline theft problem, but to an unknown extent, because there are no reliable statistics that distinguish customer thefts from those falsified by employees.12 In addition to clerks who collect payment inside the store, some of the larger retail outlets have attendants who collect payment at the pumps. New Jersey and Oregon are the only states that provide "full service" at gasoline stations due to laws banning self-service at filling stations. Apart from pumping gas, "full service" might include washing the windshield and checking oil and water levels and tire pressure. In these two states, customers cannot handle the fuel pump and attendants are always available.13
Employees can use the following various methods to steal:
- Falsely reporting a drive-off and pocketing the payment
- "Sweet-hearting"—giving gas to a friend or associate without receiving payment or with the intent of receiving goods or services as payment
- Failing to register a customer's gas sale; for example, when the customer is in a hurry, gives the exact payment, and does not wait for a receipt
However, employees cannot usually invalidate the record of a gasoline sale. Each time gas is pumped, the console or the pump will record whether payment has been received; if it has not, a shortage or cash discrepancy will automatically appear at the end of the shift.14 These recording systems are continually being made more secure (see Response 12 in the section below on responses to the problem).
When employee theft is suspected, some retailers subtract, or threaten to subtract, the shortage in the till receipts from the wages of employees.15
Reporting Gasoline Drive-Offs to Police
In most cases, stores only report gasoline thefts to the police that are witnessed with enough certainty to identify the suspect and the vehicle's license plate. Reporting to the police also depends on company policy regarding claims for these losses on its tax form. If a store reports the theft of fuel under the "casualty," or loss, column of its tax form, supporting documentation, such as an insurance or police report, would be needed. However, if the company reports the thefts in the "reduction of inventory" column, only inventory figures showing the difference between what was purchased and what was sold would be necessary. The store need not file a police report to provide evidence of the loss for tax purposes.
Harms Resulting from Gasoline Drive-Offs
Gasoline theft can significantly reduce retailers' profits, especially when fuel costs are high.16 It is money out the door, which they seek to recover by filing insurance claims and increasing gasoline prices. However, higher prices hurt law-abiding customers and result in lower in-store sales, because customers go elsewhere for their gas.17
Another cost of gas drive-offs is that some thieves try to escape by driving away at high speed. This is dangerous for both employees and customers.18 Some offenders even drive off with the pump nozzle still attached. They are sometimes stopped by attendants (who risk assault) and then are held liable for the costs of damage to the pump, whether due to negligence or criminal behavior. In some cases, gas stations never follow up, but in others damage claims can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. These claims might be settled by the driver's insurance company.19
Finally, a variety of police and criminal justice costs are incurred in dealing with apprehended offenders, and the community suffers from drop in the perceived safety of the neighborhood.
Factors Contributing to Gasoline Drive-Offs
Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you to frame local analysis questions to identify key intervention points and select appropriate responses.
Heavily victimized stores have the following common characteristics that influence offending rates:
- Location in a high-crime neighborhood
- Business practices that encourage/invite crime20 (for example, permitting customers to pump gas before paying)
- A large number of gas pumps
- Fewer than three attendants or clerks on duty
- No garage repair service, so there are few employees around
- Pre-pay option not available during hours of heaviest losses
- Inadequate lighting 21
- Store windows covered by advertisements22
- No video surveillance cameras at pump islands23
Site Layout and Design
Poor site design can impede surveillance, which, in turn, increases opportunities for theft. When the fuel pump island is directly in front of the store, employees inside can see most of the site, and customers can see inside the store.24 Placement of the store in the corner of the site also facilitates surveillance of the pumps and prevents access behind the building.25 In some cases, sight lines might be blocked by tall shrubs or trees. On small sites, many gas stations allow entrance to the pump islands from both directions. This can cause chaos, with cars competing for pump access and pedestrians crossing car paths. One-way in and out permits more controlled and orderly movement and perimeter fencing can reduce escape points.26
Considerable variation in rates of gasoline drive-offs (calculated on gallons of gasoline pumped) exist across the United States. A local problem of gas drive-offs might be part of a wider regional crime problem. Even within a particular region or city, some convenience stores and gas service stations have a greater problem than others. Rates of these offenses are generally much higher in urban than rural areas, because thieves have more gas retailing outlets to target.27 In particular, gas drive-offs tend to be a more serious problem in densely populated metropolitan areas and near interstates and highways, where there is greater anonymity; in these areas, retailers have reported losses as much as $1,500 a month per store. In small communities, where people tend to know each other, the problem is generally not very significant.28
Neighborhood type—whether commercial, residential, or mixed—is particularly relevant. If the store is located in a primarily commercial area, gas theft increases. Because few people live in commercial areas, criminals are less likely to be seen by those who are alert to potential victimization, especially during evening hours.29
Seasonal and Temporal Factors
The majority of service stations are open for business 24 hours a day, which increases the opportunities for offending. However, there are certain times of the day, days of the week, and periods of the year during which sites are more vulnerable to crime.30 Retailers are more susceptible to gas drive-offs during rush hours, lunch hours, and busy weekends.31
Reluctance to Invest in Prevention
As discussed below, retailers can deploy a variety of measures to prevent gasoline theft, but they have a countervailing interest in avoiding the costs of these measures, both direct and indirect. Take the use of pre-payment, which is very effective in reducing gasoline drive-offs, but which many convenience stores have been reluctant to introduce. Pre-payment makes buying gas less convenient, especially for cash customers, and so can hurt in-store sales, where margins are healthier. It can also result in customers choosing to go to another store that does not require pre-payment. Encouraging the use of credit cards is no solution, because the processing fees of as much as much as 10¢ per gallon sold32 has further reduced profit margins for retailers to the point they may be making less money on gasoline sales than the credit card company.33
Gasoline drive-offs are a classic example of crime that is easy to commit and that carries little chance of being caught,34 and many different kinds of people—college students, professionals, business men and women, and even retirees—do commit such theft.35 In some cases, they drive off without paying because they have run out of cash. Many of them may steal only once, but if they get away with it the first time, the chance of becoming repeat offenders greatly increases. Some hardened offenders steal gas on a regular basis. They look for an easy target and often prey on gasoline stations with inattentive staff or poor customer service practices.36
Increases in Gasoline Prices
Retailers claim that gas drive-offs increase when gasoline prices jump in a short time.37 Motorists seem to believe that service stations raise gasoline prices unfairly whenever the media report a rise in the cost of oil. Studies provide some support for this view, and they also indicate that customers are less likely to steal fuel when prices fall.38
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Gas Drive Offs
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