States Crack Down on Gasoline Thieves

 
More and more U.S. motorists have become "fuel shoplifters." With the price of gasoline at near record-high levels, gas stations are reporting that more drivers are filling up their gas tanks and fleeing without paying.

"A lot of consumers are obviously angry, and unfortunately, they're misdirecting their anger at retailers by stealing gas," notes Jeff Leonard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores. That trade group says 80,000 of its stores sell fuel, 60% of all the gasoline sold nationwide.

In 1999, gas stations estimate they lost $234 million to gas thieves. The estimate for last year, when gas prices skyrocketed to modern-day record highs, soared to $400 million.

Fuel shoplifting used to strike the average service station two or three times a week. Now, it strikes two or three times a day, says Leonard. Last summer, when the price for a gallon of regular gas spiked at $2.00 in the Midwest, some stations reported a 20-fold increase in gas thefts, according to the convenience store trade group.

Pat LaVecchia, president of a trade association of 600 Ohio gas stations, tells the story of a dealer in Macedonia, Ohio: ""Because his pumps are so far from his building, he's had to jump in his car and chase people out onto the interstate just to get their license plate number."

Gas stations themselves are also fighting back against thieves by installing video surveillance cameras, but many mom-and-pop businesses cannot afford them.

Another strategy is to require customers to pay for their gasoline before the fuel is pumped, but some stations have not adopted that rule because they don't want to inconvenience consumers and anger them.

With limits on self-help solutions, gas station owners are pushing for help from government. Twelve states have responded by pumping up criminal penalties for those convicted of stealing gas. Georgia led the way in 1998. Then came Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Most of those states have added a punishment to the usual "petty theft" penalty - suspending violators' drivers licenses for six months.

Ohio is among several states considering a crackdown. "People value very much their ability to drive their car," says State Senator Randall Gardner, the sponsor of the get-tough measure. That's why he thinks yanking drivers' licenses are a deterrent to shoplifters.

"The rest of the law-abiding citizens are paying for that stealing," says Gardner, noting that gas stations pass on their losses to customers in the price of fuel.

The average gas station now loses $4,000 a year to shoplifters, according to the convenience store trade association. That amounts to 10% of the average gas station's annual profits.

 
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