QuikTrip has tried several tactics, but nothing has worked as well as a new approval system it has tested at 19 stores in Kansas City for the past year before recently expanding it to all 70, Thornburgh said. In Tulsa, the approval system reduced the number of gas thefts by 95 percent.
That reduction is significant, Thornburgh noted, given that the company was lucky to prosecute one of 100 suspects.
Police admit that prosecution is difficult, at best. Officers usually need a license plate number and physical description of a driver in order to investigate the crime. Because of that, many drive-offs arent reported.
That might help explain why local police agencies said they havent noticed a sharp increase in reported gas thefts recently.
Lenard agreed that it is hard to determine the exact number of gas thefts each year. His company releases figures for the entire United States, but most experts agree that the figures dont come close to telling the story for a metropolitan area with easy access to interstate highways for escape routes.
Even when theyre caught, Lenard said, the first thing theyll say is, I forgot. The increase in theft is directly related to price increases and probably not related to memory loss.
Many states have stiffened their laws to help deter thefts, but retailers said the laws havent defeated the problem.
Thornbrugh pointed to a gas-theft sting in Tulsa, where it turned out that many thieves didnt mind losing their drivers licenses.
Over a third of them didnt have a drivers license anyway. Its not a deterrent, he said, adding that several of the thieves had arrest warrants for other crimes.
In Myrtle Beach, the new city ordinance has virtually ended gas theft, said Mark Kruea, city spokesman.
Local police officers pushed for the law, which makes it illegal to pump gas without first paying the bill. They came up with the proposal because of the time involved with taking reports for cases that had no chance of prosecution. Each case took at least 30 minutes of police work. With several gas thefts each day, the effort wasnt worth the result, Kruea said.
Surprisingly, most of the retailers supported the idea. They didnt want to be the first to do it on their own, he said.
Since then, some stations outside the city limits have changed their policies as well. A few have posted copies of the ordinance that blames Myrtle Beach for any customer inconvenience.
QuikTrips program requires prepayment with a twist. The free PumpStart card is available for those who prefer to pay in cash, but dont want to make two trips into the store. Customers sign up for the card in advance and agree to provide the business with their drivers license number.
Customers swipe the PumpStart card outside and pay with cash when they walk inside. The business deactivates the card if a customer drives off without paying. QuikTrip then has the option to call police or the customer. They havent had to call police yet, Thornbrugh said.
The good news is, were stopping it, he said. The bad news is, theyre not going to stop stealing gas. Theyre just going to go somewhere else to steal it.
While each community looks for an answer to what industry leaders say is an increasing problem, QuikTrip is pleased with the results of PumpStart. The company issued 130,000 cards in its Kansas City division. So far, customers havent seemed to mind the filling out the paperwork and handing over their drivers license numbers.
In fact, Thornbrugh reports most customers have said: Its about time. We knew it was going to happen.
Paying cash for gasoline after you pump it could become a thing of the past. To combat gas thefts, QuikTrip is implementing a prepayment approval system in the Kansas City area. Experiences in other markets suggest that competitors will follow suit.