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Scofflaws want tanks for nothing
By SHARON TUBBS
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000
Brunilda Blanco figured she could spot would-be thieves before they pumped gas and drove away from the Shell station she owns in Clearwater.
Typically, she said, they were "young kids, young punks trying to get away with something."
Then, the price of fuel skyrocketed and a new kind of thief emerged.
Today's criminal will cruise in at noontime, careful not to dirty a suit jacket before driving off without paying, she said.
The new thief will fill up a luxury car with $30 worth of gas and speed away, leaving the fuel nozzle dangling and the cash drawer short.
For at least a few, the line between law-abiding citizen and small-change thief seems to lie somewhere between $1.20 and $1.60 a gallon.
"When the price got higher it was like, a new -- I don't know if I should say this -- a new breed of person is stealing the gas," said Gregg Baughman, manager at a Chevron in Clearwater.
The same phenomenon is being reported nationwide.
Several weeks ago, one Lexus-driving man left a station in a Chicago suburb without paying a cent. He was just one in a string of drive-offs the station had experienced since prices went up. After police caught up with the man, he went back to the station and paid for his gas, explaining that he had been talking on his cell phone and forgot to pay.
Such losses of memory were common in Orlando, Augusta, Ga., Indianapolis, Ind., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Omaha, Neb., where authorities also documented more people driving off without paying.
Law enforcement officials with the Clearwater Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said they haven't noticed significant increases in reported drive-offs.
But some gas station officials tell a different story. Despite stabilizing gas prices, they say, the stealing has persisted.
Last week, the average per-gallon gas cost in Tampa was down more than a nickel to $1.468. The price in St. Petersburg was $1.471, down from $1.508.
Still, at Blanco's Shell station a few weeks ago, a 30-something drove his 1999 white, gold-trimmed Jeep Grand Cherokee boldly to pump No. 4 -- right in front of the window. He pumped $37 worth of gas and sped off. "We turn around, and the guy was gone," Blanco said.
Shortly after that, "I have a woman in a dress suit," Blanco said. It was midday. "I'm expecting her to pay."
Not so. Ms. Businesswoman took off, too.
"That was it," said Blanco, who estimates she has lost about $400 in recent months. Two weeks ago, she put up signs: "Warning: Drive-offs will be prosecuted."
Now, both Blanco and Baughman, manager at the Chevron, have forced customers who are not station regulars to pre-pay all the time. Before, customers only had to pre-pay after dark.
Tom Brimer, assistant manager for a Mobil station near Largo, doesn't have that luxury. Corporate headquarters doesn't like its Mobils to force customers to pre-pay, he says.
The thieves at his Ulmerton Road station have high standards, Brimer said. "They drive nice cars."
So they don't bother with the cheaper, regular gasoline. They prefer super-unleaded, which cost $1.63 a gallon one day last week. The other day, Brimer said, a man in a restored lime-green Chevy Impala stuck the station for $31.25 in super-unleaded.
"This is the worst that I've seen it," Brimer said.
In the past three months, the station has lost increasingly more money. So far in April, people have stolen about $45 in gas, he said. In all of March, the loss was about $67.
"That is high," he said.
Gas station officials said they report the drive-offs to police as a technicality, but little can be done if no one got a tag number.
Changes in policy seem to be the best option, said Baughman, who instituted the pre-pay policy two weeks ago.
"Rather than try to chase them down and put up with it, we just put in the pre-pay," Baughman said.
Some customers have complained about the pre-pay, but Baughman doesn't know if he has a choice. It used to be that would-be thieves' demeanor gave them away. If they were constantly looking up at the cashier's window, Baughman could tell they were up to no good.
"I couldn't tell by demeanor anymore," Baughman said.
Other stations have had fewer troubles.
Joy Johnson, a human resources generalist at 7-11 corporate headquarters, said she heard of no drive-off problems with the chain's gas stations. Many 7-11 stations, however, have surveillance cameras poised near the pumps, she said. Signs alert customers they are being filmed.
Kevin Kerr, owner of an Amoco at the intersection of Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher Road in Clearwater, said he has had no drive-offs in two or three months. If someone parks at one of the pumps farthest from a cashier's view -- and in the best getaway position -- workers sometimes make the person pay before turning on the gas pump, Kerr said.
As for Blanco, she may end the 24-hour pre-pay policy someday. But for now, that's the only way she knows to stop the drive-offs, she said. "It's very disturbing."
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