Gas Bandits Burgeoning

States trying to stem driveoff plague

NEW YORK -- Early last week, a trailer pulled into a Chevron station in Cottondale, Ala., to refuel. It ignited by accident, critically burning the driverand the hundreds of gallons of gasoline local police allege he intended to steal.

As sticker shock at the pump shows few signs of abating, gasoline bandits are multiplying, reported the Associated Press, pushing the rate of fuel theft to unprecedented levels. The trend illustrates that while gasoline demand remains relatively inelastic, consumer angst over high prices is steadily growing, AP contended.[image-nocss]

The problem has caught the attention of about a dozen state legislatures, which are seeking to toughen up gasoline-theft penalties, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But station owners and operators say driveoffs are not easing up.

This is the worst year I've seen, said Linda Fulton, who has managed an E-Z Mart Inc. station in Wake Village, Texas, for the past nine years. I am $111 short this week, and it's all from driveoffs. Normally, I wouldn't lose this much in a month.

The increase in gasoline theft in the past two years parallels the upward trend in gasoline prices, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS). Gasoline theft costs filling stations nationwide about $237 million in 2004, or $2,141 a store, the association estimated. That's up from $112 million in 2003.

We're not sure if 2005 will be another record year for gas theft, but even if incidences of theft remain the same, the impact will be greater because of the higher price of gas, association spokesperson Jeff Lenard said.

Retail gasoline prices, while about 5% off the record high of $2.28 a gallon reached in early April, continue to crimp consumer wallets and likely have contributed to a slowdown in demand growth, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA). Gasoline demand has grown 1.2% so far this year, below the normal annual rate of 2% to 2.5%, said Dave Costello, an EIA economist.Behaviors like stealing do mean the real cost of gasoline has had some significant impacts on people, he said.

For some, rising prices may have opened a black-market line of business. Trailers retro-fitted to steal large quantities of fuel, long given up as relics of the 1970s, are again cropping up, Lenard said. Last week's incident in Cottendale involved a trailer with a concealed, portable pump and a 300-gallon tank designed to steal gasoline, said Lt. Phil Simpson of the Tuscaloosa, Ala., Police Department, which responded to the incident.

Many stations have resisted requiring customers to pay in advance for gasoline, Lenard said, as they earn much of their money on purchases customers make inside their stores. In most cases, retailers are lucky to make a penny or two a gallon, he said. So when someone drives away with $30 of gas, it can take hundreds of fillups to break even.

And as reported in CSP Daily News, some retailers, led by Tulsa, Okla.-based QuikTrip, are testing and implementing programs such as the PumpStart dispenser-activation card.

Under rising pressure from businesses, state legislatures across the country are fighting back; 11 states have either increased penalties for gasoline theft or are considering it, said Christie Rewey, energy policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The stiffest penalties call for up to six months' driving suspension for a first-time offense and fines of $500 to $1,000. This year, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and Virginia have signed tougher measures into law. A similar bill has passed in Oregon, but has yet to be signed.

Gas theft is one of the uncalculated consequences of high prices, especially in urban areas, and it's hitting home for a lot of people, said New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D), one of the sponsors of a bill to boost penalties in New York. New York is one of the six states seeking to suspend a drivers' licenses after the first offense. With the rise in fuel prices, gasoline theft appears increasingly to be a semi-white collar crime, Brodsky said.

It used to be kids doing it for the thrill of it, or to appear cool, Lenard said. But now it's every demographic, every type of car.