Steady Theft Hurts Local Stations

Steady Theft Hurts Local Stations

New Policies Hope to Curb Gasoline Drive-Offs

While working a shift at the Exxon station in Hunters Woods, Kaushack Shah had to call the police about another drive-off gas theft. Later in the day, however, the man who had driven off returned with an apology and a ten dollar bill. It seems as though he had left, not knowing that his card failed to process in the machine.

While the return of a customer is a rare occurrence, leaving without paying is not. Each month gasoline marketers in Fairfax County experience an average of 40 drive-off gasoline thefts. Defined as pumping without paying, station owners and the Virginia General Assembly have attempted new ways to combat this problem.

"Sometimes it happens here three to four times a week, and sometimes not," said Cherent Dink of the Exxon on Baron Cameron. "It is up to the employee to stop it. We decrease the number of drive-offs."

While the awareness of station attendants is essential to curbing crime, it is often hard to accomplish during the peak hours of business. "They usually occur during rush time between 1 and 3 p.m. and then again between 5 and 6 p.m." said Shah.

It might be inaccurate to label this phenomenon as a rising trend, however there is no denying that this is happening in large quantities throughout the area. Within the first three weeks of July, the Fairfax County Police Department posted 31 counts of gasoline theft in their weekly reports.

The National Association of Convenience Stores estimates that every gas outlet loses over $1,000 a year due to gas theft. By these numbers it can be calculated that the Virginia gas market, which has close to 2,500 gasoline stations, loses roughly $3 million dollars annually at the hands of gas thieves.

"Most people are uneducated, thinking that the money goes somewhere else." said Hadi Limovee, station owner of the Exxon in Hunter’s Woods shopping center. "They think it’s our decision and responsibility for raising the price."

Limovee has reason to be concerned. When drive-offs occur, the station not only loses the money spent on purchasing the gasoline, but also the pre-paid tax. Virginia station owners must pay the 17.5 cent per gallon tax up front, instead of after the sale. With only about six and a half percent of each dollar made going towards the operation and profits of the station, there is little room for covering the cost of lost gasoline and pre-paid taxes.

Consequently, it has become important to find new methods of stopping drive-offs. The Exxon in Hunter’s Woods has seemingly hit the nail on the head with their new ‘pay before you pump’ policy.

ON THE SUCCESS of this program both Shah and his store owner Limovee maintain that while they used to deal with drive-off crime two to three times a week, they are no longer plagued by customer’s looking for a free tank of gas. "Since our new policy," which Limovee said started three months ago, "We maybe lost a few customers but we don’t mind. We are serving the community and trying to do what’s best."

To parallel new efforts of local gasoline stations, the Virginia General Assembly is gradually addressing the problem by stiffening penalties for those caught filling up for free. A new bill approved this past March more than doubled the fine for stealing gas from $100 to $250. With a first conviction comes an option of suspending the drivers’ license for a period of 30 days. A second conviction brings a mandatory license suspension. Changed to a larceny in 2004, gas-thieves with repeat offences face the possibility of jail time.

But for laws to have an effect people need to be brought to justice and that has proven to be extremely difficult. In order to catch the criminal, attendants must obtain tag numbers and report them to the police.

"Generally when we get dispatched we only have the partial tag or no tag at all and there is nothing we can do," said Fairfax County Police PIO Shelley Broderick.

But even with a full tag number, Broderick explained that there is still a problem with bringing a conviction. "Just because it happens you can’t say they meant to do it. They might have thought they paid with a credit card but it didn’t go through. For a judge to convict, you have to show intent."

The Virginia Crime Prevention Association (VCPA) recently conducted a study, which attributed 5 percent of the total crime in Virginia to gasoline theft. Whether or not this can be connected to gas price seems beside the point. While stations have little control over the amount charged per gallon, they do have control over the amount of drive-offs. The VCPA’s number one way to prevent this crime is simple: Pay before you pump.

Station attendants like Shah often feel the affects of theft in their own wallet. While the Hunters Woods Exxon no longer needs to worry about theft, other stations, such as the Baron Cameron Exxon often take the financial loss out of the pocket of the attendant on duty. What is usually seen as a crime against a corporation is really an act against a local resident.

"We can only control the theft by putting up signs and making people come in to pay." said Shah.