06/14/07 — High gas prices prompt drive-offs

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High gas prices prompt drive-offs

By Lee Williams
Published in News on June 14, 2007 1:46 PM

Consumers aren't the only ones crying the blues when they pull up to the gas pump these days.

Some local gas retailers are also singing a somber tune now that gas prices have stretched past the $2 mark and hover around $3 because that means lower profits, more headaches from customers who unfairly blame them for the prices and more gas drive-offs.

As the gas prices have increased over the last five years, so have the number of gas drive-offs.

As a result, some retailers have been forced to dip into their own pockets to make up the loss or to adopt creative ways to stop the thefts.

From January 2002 to May 2007, a total of 1,332 gas drive-offs have been reported by local gas stations in the city, according to the Goldsboro Police Department. That breaks down to an average of 250 gas drive-offs a year.

While Eric Allen, manager of Express Food Mart, 518 E. Elm St., doesn't believe he's had quite that many gas drive-offs, he says it is a concern. His store has adopted a new policy to address the problem.

"We have a couple of them," Allen said. "Now we have to look at them and see if we know them before we authorize the pump. If we don't know them, they have to prepay."

But sometimes even that plan isn't foolproof. It's not uncommon for Allen to have to dip into his own pocket to cover the $30 or $40 loss from a driver who pumps, but doesn't pay.

"If I open the pump, and they drive off, I pay for it out of my pocket," he said. "I don't want the drawer to be short."

Customers who pay for gas with a debit or credit card are instructed to pay first at Express Food Mart -- just in case their card doesn't have enough money to cover the bill.

Allen said he would love to treat everyone the same, but experience has taught him to take a harder line to protect the store's profits.

Maj. Mike Hopper, the head of the patrol division, said the rise in gas prices has become an issue. He encouraged gas retailers to adopt a similar policy and to make their customers prepay to avoid gas drive-offs.

In April 2005, the city of Goldsboro logged a record 45 gas drive-offs. In April 2006, there were 36 gas drive-offs.

Concerned about the gas drive-offs, Hopper said Goldsboro police Chief Tim Bell sent a letter to local convenience stores about a year ago warning them to be vigilant.

"A lot of these crimes could be prevented if they made everybody prepay, but I think a lot of them are afraid to start that policy because the one across the street may not do it and maybe all of the business might go over there," Hopper said. "It's hard. They're all fighting for customers, but that could be the easiest thing. I know it's not a practical thing to do all of the time, but when you have to prepay, it's a little bit harder to steal the gas."

Hopper said he believes the gas drive-offs directly relate to a rise in gas prices triggered by inclement weather like Hurricane Katrina that affected the area or gasoline production.

Not everyone has the worst intentions when they drive off without paying. Occasionally, some drivers fill up and forget to pay, Hopper said. Others, however, are not so innocent.

Some gas thieves are quite crafty.

"Some try to catch them when they're busiest and gas up and drive off," Hopper said.

In one case, one man was so determined to leave without paying that he hit the gas attendant with his car to try to get away earlier this year, according to crime reports. The alleged thief was later caught.

Some gas thieves actually hunt for new store clerks who are still trying to get adjusted to their new duties. Others choose gas pumps farthest from the store or with an obstructed view to commit gas drive-offs.

But stealing gasoline is against the law, officers say.

Those who are caught stealing gas could face fines and court fees. Those convicted of gas theft for a second and subsequent time could even lose their driver's license, according to state law.

"Gas prices have gone up, and it's taking more out of people's budgets, but that's no reason to just drive off and take it," he said.