Gas thefts needle area merchants

Increasing numbers of drive-offs lead stations to switch to prepay

'Now it's once a week'

Merchants hope threat of license loss will deter thieves

May 10, 2004|By Jacqueline Seaberg | Jacqueline Seaberg,Baltimoresun.com Staff

Avi Amoyal allowed customers to pump gasoline at his Baltimore service station for 10 years.

But that changed two years ago.

"When the gas prices went up, and everyone was freaking out, we had one or two drive-offs," said Amoyal, who has owned the Falls Road Sunoco at 4533 Falls Road for 12 years. "Those were in one week; we had another one the next week. We had to make a decision."

Now, the Falls Road Sunoco requires customers to pay before filling their tanks.

"No gas unless you prepay," Amoyal said. "The regulars had to get adapted to it. They got used to it after awhile."

With gas prices steadily rising nationwide in recent months -- setting a record $1.81 a gallon in the Baltimore region last week -- gas-station owners and industry officials say they are experiencing a new surge in gasoline drive-offs. Many stations are relying even more on their prepay systems to stem the tide, having implemented them in recent years as gas prices have skyrocketed.

"I only let regular customers pump first," said Joe Kuczinski, manager of Bud's Exxon on 7506 Eastern Ave. near Eastpoint Mall.

"We don't turn on the outer pumps anymore," said Nancy Wilkinson, a cashier at ACE Citgo, 4105 Southwestern Blvd. in Baltimore County. If there is a drive-off at one of the station's inner pumps, the cashier can read the tags from the window, she said.

But some Maryland stations have been hit this time around.

In Western Maryland, Hahn's American, a rural station near Cavetown in Washington County, will switch to prepay within 60 days, said co-owner Scott Hahn. "We never had it happen -- and now it's once a week."

About $112 million was lost from gas drive-offs at convenience stores nationwide in 2003 -- or roughly $1,000 per store, said Jeff Lenard of the National Association of Convenience Stores in Alexandria, Va. "The most common story we're hearing is that it's gone from once or twice a week to once or twice a day," he said.

According to Lenard, stations in large metropolitan areas or near interstate highways are more likely to require prepayment at the pump. Rural gas stations, where customers are more likely to know the station owners or employees, are less likely to require prepayment.

The nation has about 130,000 convenience stores, he said, with about 1,579 in Maryland. About 975 of those outlets sell gasoline, he said.

"We are seeing people much more likely to switch to prepay than in the past," Lenard said. "Usually, you don't see a drop in theft until measures are put in place to prevent it."

"It's a sad state of affairs that stations have to rely more on prepay," said Amanda Knittle, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic in Towson. "But it's also not surprising that people feel that if they can get something for free, they will try to get it."

Impact from crude

Steadily rising oil prices is behind this recent wave of drive-offs, officials say.

Crude oil prices broke a new record Friday of $40 a barrel -- fueled by increased demand, tight supplies and concerns that petroleum companies in the Middle East might face terrorism attacks.

As a result, gasoline prices have been steadily rising since January.

Nationwide, the average cost of a gallon of self-service unleaded gasoline has climbed 26 percent since Jan. 1, to $1.87, from $1.48, Knittle said. In Maryland, average gas prices set a new record on Friday, at $1.83 a gallon, up 23 percent from $1.48 in January.

In the Baltimore region, the average price set a new record of $1.81 a gallon on Friday, Knittle said. The agency doesn't have a statewide average for Jan. 1, but Knittle said regional gas prices averaged $1.74 a gallon on April 7.

"I'm sure we're going to hit $2 a gallon this summer," Knittle said. "It's the peak driving season, and a lot of other states have surpassed $2."

A $1-per-barrel increase in the cost of crude raises pump prices about 0.024 cent a gallon, NACS' Lenard said. "It doesn't look like we're in for any relief soon," he said.

"This is the biggest increase since the gas shortage," Kuczinski said, referring to the energy crisis of the 1970s. Then, he was a teenager working for his father at the Bud's Exxon station. "As for today, you can see that people are price-checking."

Criminal penalties

In Maryland, gasoline drive-offs are classified as misdemeanor theft. Felony charges apply to instances of $500 or more. Besides losing their driver's licenses, offenders face a maximum penalty of $500 and 18 months in jail, said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse of the Maryland State Police.

The agency does not keep separate records on gasoline drive-offs, he said.

Prosecution can be difficult because suspects often claim that they simply forgot to pay or that another person was driving their car at the time, Lenard said. Some people go to the pump intending to steal gas and take steps to avoid detection.

"If someone drives in without a license plate, it's pretty obvious what they're doing," Lenard said.

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