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Published: 10/7/2005

Gas thefts targeted by owners of area stations

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Area gasoline station owners, stung by people driving off without paying as gas prices hover close to $3 a gallon, have pumped up countermeasures.

Some require pre-payment all the time, others have more security cameras, and some have clerks using binoculars to read license plates.

At the Flying J Travel Plaza off I-280 just north of the Stoney Ridge Ohio Turnpike exit, manager Keith Lammers said drive-offs have increased 15 to 20 percent since the price of gasoline climbed above $2 a gallon.

The company switched this week to pre-pay at all its pumps from half the pumps, he said.

"I have a feeling everybody will be going to pre-pay pretty soon," he said.

Joel Teague, an official with the Ohio firm that owns area Fuel Mart stores, said the company doesn't want to go to pre-pay. It's a "drastic" step, he said.

"It's an inconvenience for our honest customers and it cuts down on in-store sales because people don't want to make a second trip into the store," said Mr. Teague, of Ports Petroleum of Wooster.

"Pay at the pump is probably the simplest way to fight it and you can do surveillance cameras, but cameras have a tough time getting a good look at every car on the lot."

The drive-offs are a problem, he said, because along with the price of gas, the average non-payment has risen, to $40 to $60.

Gas theft last year amounted to $237 million nationwide, with the average loss per store $2,141, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores. Some thieves are smart, trying to angle their cars to foil the cameras or the clerk inside from reading a license plate, experts said.

Among the measures tried to curb the theft is one at a Tulsa, Okla., station: Cash customers must provide contact information to get a card that activates a pump. If the cardholder doesn't pay after a fill-up, the name is turned over to police.

A company in Altoona, Pa., has begun installing machines that take cash at the pumps, forcing customers to pay by cash or credit card.

Neither approach has been tried in Toledo, partly because station owners are concerned about alienating customers.

Speedway SuperAmerica, of Enon, Ohio, tries to be courteous and watchful simultaneously to fight the problem.

Chris Fox, a spokesman, said clerks are trained to politely talk to customers pumping gas, subtly advising them the store knows they are there.

"When a customer pulls up at a pump and doesn't use the credit card, the assumption is they're coming in to pay.

"You would say, 'Thank you for using Speedway. We'll see you inside when you're finished,'‚óŹ'' she said. "We let them know we know they're there and keeping an eye on them."

Speedway uses digital surveillance cameras and vigorously prosecutes all drive-offs, Ms. Fox said. As a last resort, she said, it has pre-pay at problem locations.

At area Barney's Convenience Stores, owner Bob Richard said he installed surveillance and other anti-theft techniques several years ago. "It's all closed circuit. We record everything."

For outer pumps the stores require pre-pay after dark, which has helped cut down theft. "And every place has got a pair of binoculars right at the window so we can check on a license," he said. "We know who you are."

Contact Jon Chavez at:

jchavez@theblade.com

or 419-724-6128.



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