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Customers Are Not Paying for Their Gas

Sterling gas station attendants see rise in the number of "drive offs."

Some Sterling gas station customers are taking the slogan "gas up and go" too literally.

Sterling service station attendants say higher gasoline prices have prompted an increase in motorists who fill up their tanks and drive off without paying. Wendy House, an assistant manager at Amoco on Sterling Boulevard, said the service station had two "drive offs" a day when the cost of gas first shot up.

Area prices have risen as high as $2.10 per gallon of regular unleaded, but they have begun to decline.

About 12:30 p.m. Saturday, another motorist drove away without paying. House rushed out, memorized the license plate and vehicle description and called the Loudoun County Sheriff's Department.

After providing Deputy Sheriff Matthew Lang with the plate number, House said, "Everyone on the morning shift calls me a track star." Wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, she looked the part.

Ikram Baig, cashier for "On the Run" Exxon gas and convenience store on Bartholomew Fair Drive, said customers in their late teens and early 20s drive off two or three times a week. "It's a very big problem for all gas stations," he said.

Gurnam Singh, who works with Baig and at another Sterling Exxon gas station, said he had a customer who pumped gasoline worth "$22 and some change, then put the nozzle on the ground and drove off." At "On the Run," he uses a set of binoculars to get the license plate numbers. At the other Exxon, he writes down license plate numbers when people first drive in to buy gas. "But only when we aren't busy," he added.

Baig said Exxon has warned attendants not to chase after the cars for their safety's sake.

VEHICLES LINE UP for the gas pumps at Getty on Holly Avenue since the service station offers some of the least expensive gasoline prices in town. It costs $1.92 for regular unleaded, compared to a nearby service station, which charges $2.05 for the same grade.

Mandeep Singh, a Getty sales assistant, said the owner decided to post signs requiring payment after 6 p.m. because of the "drive offs." The move was a success, but some people still drive away during the day, he said. Singh is against any attempt to make day customers pay before they fill their tanks. "It will be inconvenient for people," he said. "We want to keep customers happy."

He placed the motorists in two categories: "Some of the people are teenagers and some people just think they can get away with it."

The problem existed before the prices rose, and increased a "little bit" afterward, he said.

Stephanie Black, manager of Sweetwater Chevron off Sterling Boulevard, said she posted "Pay First" signs on the pumps after three "drive-offs" in one week. Black, who has worked at the mini-mart/gas station for about 15 years, decided enough was enough. If a "regular customer," someone who frequents Chevron everyday, wants gas, she'll let him or her fill up the tank before paying. "Some of our customers aren't happy, but a very few," she added.

Black said she also would allow someone to gas up if they are adamant about it. "We don't want an argument," she said.

The bottom line is she cannot afford to lose the money, she said. "You don't make much on the gas anymore."

S. Dhillon, a cashier at Shell on Route 7, said "drive offs" are likely to happen when he is busy.

Lois Bentley, assistant manager at Circle K Mobil in Cascades, said the problem is part of the cost of doing business.

Some customers legitimately forget to pay. "They have so much on their minds," she said. "We're in such a fast-paced society."

BLACK AGREED. Sometimes the customer inserts a credit card into the pump and thinks they have paid for the gas. But the credit card doesn't always work.

She recalled an elderly man who forgot to pay. She called the Sheriff's Department and asked if a deputy could call the customer and kindly ask him to come back. Before she knew it, she saw the sheriff escorting an elderly woman in the same car the man had been driving. Then she noticed the elderly man steering a different car into the gas station. He told the woman, who happened to be his wife, not to worry, because he already had gassed up the other car. With a stern look, she replied, "No kidding. You forgot to pay."

Black, with a wide smile, said the man was a regular customer and didn't hear "the end of it" for some time. "A lot of times I think it can truly be an accident."

Bentley said she knows when a customer purposely drives off, because he would lay the nozzle on the ground. Consequently, the bell doesn't ring inside alerting the cashier that it's time for the customer to pay. "That way we don't notice they've driven off," she said. When she is able to memorize a license plate, the Sheriff's Department has been good in tracking down the culprits, she said.

Lt. Russell Wall said it's difficult to estimate how many "drive offs" are reported in a week.

Lt. Col. Ron Gibson, in a telephone interview, said deputies follow up on all of them. "We make every effort to identify the perpetrators."

The crime is classified as a petty larceny, a Class I misdemeanor, punishable with up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Wall said a person could lose his or her license upon conviction.

"As I'm talking to you, they are actually dispatching one," Gibson said. Another deputy sheriff was on the way to a Sterling service station.

Gas station owners have different policies about losses incurred by "drive-offs." Employees at two area gas stations said they are required to pay with their own money when a customer drives away without paying.