Saturday, May 29, 2004

More drivers pump and run

Some gas station owners turn to prepay

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Colerain Township station owner Judy Stickrod hadn't experienced "pump rage" over high gasoline prices. Then Thursday, she had two customers leave without paying - and one had pumped $21 in gas.

"You can't tell me that people just forgot," Stickrod said Friday. "People are blaming us station owners for this, and it isn't our fault."

Stickrod's Sunoco station on Colerain Avenue isn't alone in getting hit by a rash of gas thefts, according to state and national gasoline station representatives and local law enforcement officials.

While hard numbers are difficult to come by, most experts say that as gas prices have risen, so has the number of thefts. Butler County has seen an increase, and most scofflaws leave with about $10 to $20 worth of gas, sheriff's spokesman Det. Monte Mayer said.

"But... just last night, we had a gas drive-off for $2.01," he said Thursday.

Prices eased a bit Friday to $1.98 for a gallon of regular unleaded in Southwest Ohio, according to Oil Price Information Service. The Northern Kentucky average was just above $2 a gallon, while the national average was $2.04 a gallon.

"The higher the price of gas, the higher proportionally the number of drive-offs," said Richard Maxedon, executive director of the Kentucky Petroleum Marketers Association, which represents convenience stores and gas stations statewide.

"We're seeing the attitude that these people feel ripped off, and so they're going to rip off who they perceive the culprit to be," Maxedon said. "But in actuality, gas station owners dislike high prices as much as the consumer, because those prices charged by the oil companies for the gas actually squeeze their margins."

Linda Casey, spokeswoman for Findlay-based Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC, which operates the area's Speedway stations, said her company hasn't seen an increase in drive-offs. But the amount of money lost to them is increasing, she said.

Last year, gas drive-offs cost the convenience-store industry about $112 million, or about $1,000 a station. That average counts all stations, including the ones in states that require either full service or prepayment for gas, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.

By contrast, the nation's 106,000 convenience stores lost an average of $11,320 - or a total $1.2 billion - a year to non-gas theft, shoplifting or damaged in-store items, association spokesman Jeff Lenard said.

No national figures for 2004 drive-offs were available, but Lenard said some stations at busy interstate sites or in metro areas are now reporting losses of $800 or more a month. "Stations that used to have two a week are now getting two a day," he said.

It's hard to prosecute people for drive-offs, Maxedon and other industry experts say. When caught, most offenders get off by simply saying it was a mistake and repaying the amount in question.

Just two Ohio drivers - both from Cuyahoga County - have had their licenses suspended under a new law against gasoline theft as of May 14, according to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The law, requiring the suspension of a license for up to six months, was enacted in March.

"It becomes an issue of trying to show criminal intent, and if the money is repaid, then it is hard to do that," Ohio State Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Rick Fambro said.

The rise in drive-offs is spurring many stations to force customers to prepay if they don't use a credit card, although owners such as Roth Bullock are resisting such a change.

"That just really torques off the customers," said Bullock, whose Pendleton, Ky.-based Bullock Oil Co. operates 15 Cowboy's convenience stores along Interstate 71, including one in Glencoe, Gallatin County.

Stickrod hasn't gone to prepay pumps but says Thursday's culprits will pay if they are caught.

"If they catch those people, you can bet I'll prosecute ... you wouldn't get away with stealing something from a grocery store and then saying you forgot to pay for it," she said. "To me, it is just an out-and-out theft, and I'm hoping a tough stance will put a stop to it."

Staff writer Janice Morse contributed. E-mail

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