Sunday, June 18, 2000

Gas theft rising with prices

'Drive-offs' costing stations

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As gasoline prices have risen, so have the number of “drive-offs” — when people fill up their tanks and dash off without paying.

        Gasoline stations nationwide started noticing an increase in thefts as prices pushed past $1.50 a gallon earlier this year.

    Here are some suggestions for conserving gasoline and saving money at the pump:
• Use your most energy-conserving vehicle.
• Combine errands, making several stops in one outing.
• Comparison-shop by telephone, newspaper or the Internet.
• Do not use a higher-grade gasoline than recommended by your vehicle manual.
• Avoid topping off your gasoline tank to prevent spillage.
• Avoid sudden starts and try to maintain a steady speed.
• Maintain your vehicle and make sure your tires are not underinflated.
• Avoid hauling extra weight and keep luggage inside the vehicle instead of strapped on top, where it increases wind resistance.

        Officials from a national association of convenience stores, which sell 60 percent of the gasoline sold in the United States, say the losses from such thefts could rise above $1 billion this year. In 1999, convenience stores that sold gasoline lost about $164 million.

        Locally, police and gas sta tion employees said gas thefts are on the rise.

        “It's up and there is no doubt you'll see more of it,” said Union Township Police Chief Lynn Brown.

        Chief Brown said that in the Butler County township, before the recent jumps in gas prices to near and above $2 per gallon, such thefts occurred about three times a week.

        But now police are receiving reports of 10 to 15 drive-offs a week, Chief Brown said.

        “I'm afraid it's going to get worse,” he said.

        Randy Sharrock, spokesman for Cincinnati-based Triumph Energy Corp., which owns and operates more than 20 gas stations in Greater Cincinnati, said drive-offs “have been up a little bit since the price has been up.”

        “You have to step up your security and pay more attention,” Mr. Sharrock said.

        A cashier at a Norwood Speedway keeps a pair of binoculars handy to better read the license plate numbers of thieves speeding away with a full tank of gas.

        The cashier, who asked not to be identified, said there are about two more such thefts per week since gas prices began their recent sharp climb.

        To thwart drive-offs, more stations are using video cameras to monitor customers, and intercom systems to speak directly to motorists at the pump. The intercom's purpose is twofold: it eases communications, but also alerts motorists that they are being watched.

        Chief Brown said that if prices continue to climb, gas stations will have to do more to stop the stealing.

        “They will need to start putting in place security, like a bank,” he said.

        Jack Jackson of Mount Adams is one of thousands of consumers peeved about the higher prices. He said he can understand why the thefts are happening.

        “Not that I haven't thought about it with prices being so high, but I could never actually do it,” he said Saturday.

        Meanwhile, more motorists are taking precautions to protect their increasingly valuable gas once they buy it. Sales of locking gas caps are up at some area auto parts stores.

        “Sales are definitely up,” said Ron Mueller, manager of an Auto Zone store in Florence. “It seems like everybody that comes in is talking about the higher gas prices.”

        Mara H. Gottfried and Gannett News Service contributed to this report.


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