Gasoline Retailers Turn to Cameras to Thwart Drive-Offs

Aug. 7--As the price of gasoline has maintained its inexorable climb over $3 a gallon, it might seem likely that more people would be tempted to fill their tanks and drive off without paying.

But that hasn't been the case around Helena. While some stations seem to be affected more than others, the number of gas drive-offs, while still substantial, actually fell by 45 percent in the last year. According to figures compiled by the Helena Police Department, 264 gas thefts were reported from Aug. 1, 2004 to July 31, 2005. In the subsequent 12 months ending last Monday, the number was only 145. "They do happen, but we haven't noticed an increase in gas thefts," said chief Troy McGee.

Those numbers would be a surprise to Rob Escovedo, manager of Friendly's Sinclair on 11th Avenue. Escovedo said this week that the popular 10-pump station had been the victim of 14 thefts in the past eight days. "The thing that kind of gets us is that we have a pretty sophisticated security system in place. We're pulling (license) plates left and right," he said. "Some of it's just blatant. The clerk will watch them get in the car and drive off."

Friendly's has cameras that focus on the license plates of every car that pulls up to the pump, as well as surveilance cameras that cover the entire parking lot and pump islands.

Not all thefts are intentional -- in some cases, the person comes back to sheepishly pay up. But others make a habit of it. "One guy we caught a year ago, it turned out to be his third offense," Escovedo said.

Other stores with less security than Friendly's say gas theft is a smaller problem.

"I haven't, knock on wood, had a problem with it," said Jim Waeckerlin, owner of Jolly-O's Gas 'n' Go on the corner of Cedar and North Montana. "We had a couple last fall, but it's been quite a while." Waeckerlin's security consists of clerks keeping an eye on the pumps. He said his location, at a busy intersection where lines of cars at a traffic light might preclude a fast getaway, could make a potential thief think twice.

One solution might be to force everyone to pre-pay for gas. Escovedo, though, said that's a tough move for a store to make on its own. "I don't think you'll see that until everybody does it," he said. "Sinclair's stand on that is that you don't want to be the first one in the industry to mandate 'pay first.' You're trying to balance the inconvenience to your customers with your security." Other stations, while still allowing people to pump before paying, have microphone systems that clerks use to tell customers to pump then pay, a step that some feel Magee said that aside from anecdotal evidence, there's nothing in the statistics that indicate geography or any other factors make some stations more susceptible to gas theft.