As Gas Prices Increase, So Do Gas Thefts

MINNEAPOLIS -- Convenience store owners say the number of gas thefts are rising along with gasoline prices.

Increases in gas thefts could be caused by what some officials call "pump rage" - anger about gas prices - or purely economic reasons. But "drive-offs" cost the industry about $237 million last year, up from $112 million in 2003, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.

The 500 retailers in the Minnesota Service Station Association report monthly cumulative losses of as much as $225,000, said executive director Lance Klatt.

"In the last two weeks we've gone from getting 10 calls a week to 30 a week," said Klatt. "That's a pretty good example (of) how much the price of fuel has gone up."

The national association estimates that one of every 1,100 fill-ups is a drive-off. The 2004 total averaged out to losses of about $2,141 per store.

Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the national association, said the trend is a form of "pump rage" - or misdirected anger. He says consumers feel someone needs to account for the pain caused by high gas prices.

"You can't go after OPEC for the prices they charge, or the states or the feds for the gas tax, so the only one people can send a message to is the retailer," said Lenard.

Tom Sipe, who operates a gas station in Robbinsdale, said that after 43 years in the service station business, he had learned to accept gasoline thefts as another unwanted part of business.

But recent increases have made it harder to deal with.

"The way this is going, if I'm getting a few a week, it could add up to $3,000, $4,000 by the end of the year. That's a tough way to make a living."

The Minnesota Legislature is trying to help service owners. They toughened the law this year, and gas thieves can have their license suspended.

Station operators can collect the price of the gasoline plus a service charge of $30 from people who commit drive-offs. If the fee isn't paid within 30 days, a civil fine of $100 is assessed. If they don't pay, that's when they lose their license.

Minnesota is the 27th state that can suspend gas thieves' drivers' licenses.

Gas station owners are hesitant to require customers to pay for gasoline before filling up, even though it could be the most effective weapon they have against theft.

Prepaying customers tend to buy less gas, and they are less likely to enter the store and buy other items.

Sipe said he's frustrated with options he faces to thwart drive-offs.

"I've been putting off installing cameras, but I guess I'll have to, " he said. "Sure, I could make everyone prepay, but I've got old customers who have been coming since the day I opened. (They're) the most honest people in the world, and I'd hate to do that to them."

"I guess all I can do is be more vigilant."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press