Paying the Price

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Paying the Price

By John Lofstock - 05/05/2003
A Shell gas station clerk in New Port Richey, Fla., was injured after he grabbed a car door to stop a motorist who was running out on a $16 bill. Karam Zaki was dragged 450 feet while being kicked by the driver before swinging off the car. The driver has not been caught.

Cases such as these are becoming all too familiar as the price of gasoline approached record highs in March and April. The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) estimates drive-offs cost the industry more than $100 million annually.

Convenience store and gas station owners say they always see an increase in gas theft when prices are high. While some drivers may be squeezed so tight they can't afford the higher gas costs, owners say others, thinking gas sellers are jacking up prices unfairly, may be taking it out on them. Some elected officials and the Automobile Association of America have questioned if there is price-gouging going on, a claim storeowners angrily reject. An investigation by the State of California into that state's high gas prices found oil companies did nothing wrong. Rather, the report blamed the war in Iraq and the effects of a two-month-long oil strike in Venezuela.

Regardless of the reasons, industry retailers are the only face angry customers see when paying buying gas. Therefore, they are easy targets for consumers to vent their hostilities. "Everybody wants to blame us," said Bill Douglass, who owns 10 Lone Star convenience stores in Texas. "But often we don't make any money off of the transactions. People think they are getting back at the oil companies, but it's me they're hurting. They are stealing from me."

To deter theft, some station owners require customers to pay before pumping, while others have installed security cameras. Delta Sonic Car Wash Systems Inc., for example, has seen a 33-percent increase in drive-offs in the past month. Officials said the Buffalo, N.Y.-based company has lost a quarter-million dollars in the past year because of it. "People often see this as a victimless crime," said Brian Stone, the company's director of corporate loss prevention. "But at some point, every retailer is going to have to hand down that price to consumers."

The 22-store chain, which sells gasoline at all locations, is cracking down on drive-offs with video surveillance systems at all of its sites. Each location can be viewed from a central bank of monitors at its main office. The system will be able to zoom in on culprits and their license plates and e-mail the information to police within minutes, Stone said.

Deterrence Pays

States and localities have helped the industry by enacting laws in recent years to increase fines for drive-offs and allowing law enforcement officials to take away drivers' licenses.

In Maryland, for instance, customers pumping gas and leaving without paying could serve up to a year in jail and be fined by the court. Michigan is one of 20 states that has reported a nearly 40-percent drop in drive-offs since it passed tougher legislation to punish perpetrators, said Mark Griffin, president of the Michigan Petroleum Association and Michigan Association of Convenience Stores. The state adopted a law in 2000 that stiffened the penalties — suspending driver licenses for up to six months for first-time offenders (double the old penalty), and suspending them for up to a year for repeat offenders.

As a warning to would-be culprits, many gas pumps now carry decals with the warning: "Drive off without paying and it could be the last time you drive."