Stations losing more in gas drive-offs

By Aisha I. Jefferson

Gas prices aren't the only thing rising at the Locust Grove Exxon on Bill Gardner Parkway near Interstate 75.

According to the gas station's owner, Sue Patel, the number of gas drive-offs occurring also have increased. Patel said every week her gas station loses $100 to $150 due to gas drive-offs "because people fill up for $50 or $60 and drive-off."

Patel said she has a clue why many people gas and go.

"Gas is getting high; that's why people are driving off – they cannot afford $2.50 a gallon," she said.

Patel isn't the only petroleum retailer in Henry County who is preyed on by gasoline thieves. Locust Grove Police Chief Jesse Patton said about three gas drive-offs are reported to his department each week.

"We've got so many right along the interstate. I guess that's a convenient place for them to do it," Patton said, adding that gas drive-offs occur around the city and not in one particular location. Patton said stations along Ga. Highway 42 in Locust Grove don't seem to be targeted as much.

In spite of the amount of gas drive-offs taking place, Patton said the number isn't because of increased gas prices.

Hampton Police Chief Bud Smith also said his department hasn't seen any more gasoline thefts than usual.

However, Smith said, "I'm sure we will if gas prices don't come down again."

The average price of gas in Georgia is $2.56, with the average price in metro Atlanta being $2.58 a gallon, according to AAA Auto Club South spokesman Gregg Laskoski. Laskoski said the national average price for gas is $2.60 a gallon.

"The federal government is basically saying that the price of gas could go up slightly through Labor Day weekend," said Laskoski, adding that AAA agrees with this prediction. "It could be another couple of cents between now and next weekend. Maybe as much as four or five cents."

Laskoski said Labor Day weekend is the peak of summertime travel, and that once that time passes, gas prices should decline as consumer travel and need for gas declines.

"We don't know if the decline is going to be a gradual decline or a sharp decline," Laskoski said.

Regardless of how much gas prices may increase or decrease, Henry County Police Lt. Jason Bolton said high prices is not a green light to steal gas.

"Gas drive-offs are just as illegal as they've always been, despite the burden the current rate of gas creates on all of us," Bolton said. "Committing a gas drive-off is a misdemeanor that can land you both a fine and 60 days in jail. A second violation will get your drivers license suspended."

Patton said people committing gas drive-offs will be charged with theft by shoplifting.

Like Smith and Patton, Bolton said there hasn't really been a noticeable increase in the number of gas drive-offs.

"Honest folks are still paying for it, and thieves are continuing to steal it; it's just that the amount they're stealing has a greater monetary value because of the increased prices," said Bolton, who pointed out that gas drive-offs occur every day.

Director Tom Smith with Georgia Association of Petroleum Retailers, Inc. (GAPR) suggested gas station owners install surveillance cameras in the front of gas stations as a deterrent to gas drive-offs. Based in Griffin, GAPR represents a wide variety of gas stations across the state from mom and pop operations to conglomerates. For every tank of gas that's stolen, Smith said "that retailer's got to pay for that tank of gas and they also have to pay state and federal taxes on that gas that that person drives off with."

Bolton agreed that installing surveillance cameras could help cut back on gas thefts.

"Surveillance cameras at the pumps and astute attendants help prevent and solve this type of crime," Bolton said. "Requiring pre-payment is an effective way for gas stations to eliminate drive-offs."

Bolton said alert motorists who are paying for their own gas may be able to get a violator's tag number as they try to flee the parking lot.