Fuel drive offs raise concern
Over the past 18 months the increase in fuel prices has been matched by an increase in the number of people driving off from service stations without paying. Some fill up and flee, others tell staff they are unable to pay. Service station operators are having to remain vigilant and work closely with police to limit the damage to their bottom line.
Fuel thefts soar
Service station fuel thefts are rising along with the price of petrol and diesel.
Police data shows the number of drive-offs has almost doubled in the last three years. When fuel prices started rising in late 2017, so too did the number of drive-offs. This year, police are getting reports of around 1,300 such fuel thefts every month. This compares with around 800 a month in 2016. At the height of the price hikes last year, there were around 1,500 fuel thefts per month.
None of this is news to Anil Nathoo of BP 2go Motor Centre Northshore, who is the third generation of his family to own the business.
“The last 12 to 15 months we’ve had more drive-offs than we’ve ever had. We used to have only a few drive-offs each year, but in this financial year, losses have increased by 400 percent.”
“There’s no particular demographic or gender - it seems as though the cost of living and rising petrol prices may be a factor but, also, the law is too easy on these offenders; they know they can get away with it.” In his latest theft, an ordinary looking middle-aged man driving a Honda pulled in, filled up two 50 litre containers, and then just drove off, forcing one of the forecourt attendants to leap to safety.
Anil and his team use a range of strategies to minimise the thefts. “We’ve always had a forecourt attendant for customer service. But now we also check for number plates that are damaged, tampered with, or obscured and keep a very close eye on who is coming and going. If there are any doubts, the forecourt staff check the registration label in the windshield against the physical plates to ensure they match. This is done subtly while washing the customer’s windscreen on the passenger’s side of the vehicle. “Last year we began locking off all the pumps and only open them up for people we recognise - locals, regular weekly shoppers, or for those who appear legitimate with fuel-cards or company-branded vehicles. Everyone else has to come in to the counter to prepay.”
The team pays close attention to who is pulling into the outside lanes, particularly if they point their car toward the road, rather than the convenience store. “From experience we know those pumps are targeted because they are further away from the cashier and they can make a quick getaway. Those who are intending to steal also come in at our busy times.” Anil uses Ca Jam and Motochek to check out suspicious vehicles, and to check up on customers who have driven off without paying. Frequently he finds any car with a dodgy plate has been stolen, or the drive-off was done by someone from outside the area. Anil now hosts a twice-yearly event where customers can get their number plate screws changed over to tamper-proof screws. The event is run in partnership with the North Harbour Community Patrol with support from the local police.
Unable to pay
Spotting those who can’t or won’t pay is tricky.
As a result, there is also a growing number of people who fill up, and then when they get to the counter, admit they can’t pay for their fuel.
For many people there’s a genuine reason: they’ve left their wallet at home, or lost their card, or something else.
“Theft is all about the intent to steal. But if someone used an Eftpos card and it was declined, or they made some effort, or showed an intent to pay by signing the Unable to Pay form, then it’s not theft. It’s a civil matter.”
Anil does everything he can to get these customers to find a way to pay before they leave the site – whether it’s calling a friend for help, or transferring money via a mobile device on the spot.
“If this doesn’t work we can take a photo, or a copy of their driver’s licence, try to get them to leave some collateral – preferably something of significant value, or their phone if it is in perfect working order. We also advise them that CCTV images will be used on Facebook and a debt collection agency will be hired.”
As a last resort he will have the customer fill out an Unable to Pay form, knowing that once it’s signed, it becomes a civil matter, which means there’s very little action police can take.
Anil says some customers are very familiar with the form and even ask for it when they come up to the counter.
Recently, he’s started using a debt collector to chase down those who owe money.