Gas Thefts Rising As Prices Do

Record high gasoline prices are seen Tuesday, March, 23, 2004, at a gas station in Van Nuys section of Los Angeles. Gasoline prices in the United States continue to soar
When gas thieves strike Salim Gillani's Chevron station, all they leave behind is a leaky pump.

"It's like they're driving the pace car at a NASCAR race," said Gillani, whose station is near one of Atlanta's interstate highways. "Catching them, that's the hard part."

With record-high gas prices, more people are speeding away from the pump without paying for fill-ups that can cost as much as $40 a tank.

Gas retailers are reporting theft increases of 200 percent to 300 percent over the last couple months, said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores. On average, stations lost $919 per year from thefts in 2002, down from $2,253 per store in 2000 and $1,032 in 2001.

"Gas is getting to be a fairly large expense. People who are struggling to make ends meet are more likely to drive off," said Jason Toews, co-founder of, which tracks gas prices nationwide.

The average national retail price of gasoline stood at a record $1.76 per gallon Friday. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts prices could reach $1.83 this spring.

In related developments:

  • Even those record prices don't provide incentive to significantly alter driving or car-buying habits, according to a recent survey by CNW Marketing Research of Brandon, Ore., which regularly tracks such trends. If pump prices were sustained at $1.75 per gallon for six months, only 3 percent of motorists said they would drive "somewhat less" than they do today, according to a random telephone survey of 3,981 Americans. The figure rose to 9 percent at a hypothetical level of $2.75 per gallon. The survey also found that gasoline would have to cost $2.75 per gallon for at least six months before even 5 percent of respondents said they would "immediately" purchase a more fuel efficient vehicle.
  • Within a couple of years, Americans could find those fuel-mileage estimates the government puts on new car and truck windows a little more sobering. Current numbers may be higher than the mileage motorists actually experience, says an environmental group. That has the Environmental Protection Agency looking at whether it should change the way it calculates fuel efficiency for each make and model. The agency has just begun collecting information in response to a petition for change from San Francisco-based environmentalist organization Bluewater Network. Any changes on the window stickers probably are a couple of years away.
  • OPEC's plan to cut its oil production target by 4 percent appears to be unraveling, as group members ignore their self-imposed quotas to take advantage of high crude prices and meet
    the surging demand for oil in China and the United States, observers say. Despite announcing two production cuts in six months, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has boosted its actual output to try to keep pace with the rising market.

    As prices go up, so do the number of reported gas thefts.

    Gas stations are usually hit during the busiest times of day - often when lottery numbers come in, Gillani said.

    The culprits generally park at the pump farthest from the cashier, and they sometimes wear hats so they can't be identified.

    Then the pump is left on the ground so the station employee doesn't know the car is finished filling up, and the thieves are usually gone before anyone notices.

    "It is a misdirected frustration toward retailers. It is not a Robin Hood crime. It is not robbing from the rich and giving to the poor," Lenard said. "It's robbing from people who are already suffering."

    Service stations used to be hit maybe once a month by gas thieves. Now, Gillani said he deals with the problem two or three times a week.

    Twenty-five states now have laws that allow judges to suspend the driver's license of someone convicted of gas theft. But it's difficult to catch them because video cameras at service stations often have a hard time getting the right angle to record a license plate, Gillani said.

    "It makes law-abiding customers pay that much more for their gas," Lenard said.

    There are ways to stop gas thefts. Stations can require customers to pay in advance, but they're hesitant to do so because people are less likely to buy additional items inside the store, and because credit card companies take their cut.

    In Mount Pleasant, S.C., the town passed a one-of-a-kind law that requires motorists to pay before pumping gasoline. Since the ordinance took effect last month, gas thefts investigated by the city's police decreased by 10 percent.

    It also helps to greet customers in person or over an intercom so they know they're being watched, Lenard said.

    "It is a misdirected frustration toward retailers. It is not a Robin Hood crime. It is not robbing from the rich and giving to the poor," he said. "It's robbing from people who are already suffering."