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High gas prices drive increase in thefts

One drive-off can wipe out day's profits

May 3, 2011

Menomonee Falls — Growing gas prices are taking bigger chunks out of drivers' budgets, but they're also taking a toll on local gas station owners who are struggling to deal with a burgeoning problem: gas drive-offs.

Small-business owners like Pinder Grewal, who owns Paul's Mobile Mart in Menomonee Falls with her husband Paul, can't afford to be ripped off at the rate this crime has taken off.

Trying to stay competitive

She said gas stations are supposed to keep their margins at 6 percent to level the playing field, but her business has had to lower them to remain competitive. Contrary to the name, most of the money made by gas station owners comes from places other than at the pump.

"We are not making anything on gas," said Grewal, explaining that the slim margins and added credit card fees make gas a weak money-maker. So, if the driver of an SUV buying $80 of gas decides not to pay, that could be profits for the whole day.

"If they steal a bag of chips, OK, (it's) 99 cents, but if they steal a tank of gas, it's my whole day's profits. When the price of gas gets high, people don't want to pay," Grewal said, adding that with high prices, people who paying for their gas are buying less because they can't afford to fill their tanks. That makes the loss of a full tank an even bigger hit than during more productive times.

With so many gas stations allowing the driver to pump gas before paying, a growing number of delinquent drivers are simply taking off after filling up.

Unprecedented problem

From the start of 2011 to April 27, Menomonee Falls had 28 reported drive-offs, with a number of gas stations getting hit a number of times. The last time this type of crime was so prevalent was in 2008 when gas prices were well over $3 per gallon, but even then, the winter and early spring data was not as staggering.

The trend is even more alarming when you consider that in 2009, when gas had settled around $2 per gallon nationally, Falls saw just three drive-offs from January through April.

Some gas stations can absorb the hits, particularly those owned by corporations. A Speedway in Germantown was hit twice in the last two weeks, but since it doesn't have a local owner, it doesn't hurt local business. In fact, calls to corporate headquarters were met with disinterest, as representatives said they have no plans to make any changes to avoid such problems.

No easy fix

For local owners like those at Paul's, it's a hit they can't take. Unfortunately, Grewal said, making a change to something like prepaying for gas isn't popular with customers. Unless you're paying at the pump, a driver has to go inside and prepay with cash before being able to pump gas.

"We tried it at first when we bought the gas station, but people didn't like it. If everybody in the area is prepaid then I don't think anybody would mind."

Police Chief Anna Ruzinski said prepay systems were a fix at Woodman's, where drive-offs had become increasingly common, but she understands it's not an option for every business.

Most gas stations have cameras and surveillance equipment to track these crooks, but a ring of gas thieves, who seem to be filling up myriad cars rather than just one personal car, has been spotted in the area.

"We got a call from a citizen who saw three suspicious vehicles in their subdivision changing plates. Then one of the cars would be involved in a drive off," Ruzinski said.

The Falls Police Department tracks the cars, license plates and people involved in these small-time thefts, but when they're changing cars and plates, it can make the task even more onerous. These thieves also tend to target gas stations near highways and major thoroughfares.

The access is ideal for drivers, but also creates an avenue for a clean getaway in the case of a drive-off.

By the Numbers

Date Gas Price Falls drive-offs
April 28, 2008 $3.57/gallon 21
April 27, 2009 $2.02/gallon 3
April 26, 2010 $2.285/gallon 13
April 25, 2011 $3.81/gallon 28

Source: Energy Information Administration

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