Soaring gasoline prices are sparking a mini-crime wave at the pumps, service station owners say, as an increasing number of motorists fill their car's tank and drive off without paying.
Their escape strategies differ; some switch their license plates, others tape over plate numbers to make identification impossible. A few fill up and then leave the nozzle on the ground, so the clerk inside doesn't get signaled that they are done pumping. The most common tactic seems to be pulling up next to the farthest pump, out of sight from swamped cashiers, filling up and taking off.
Before gas prices spiked, cashier Brandon Armstrong says, he saw one gas theft in a two-month period at his station, a Mobil near Routes 3A and 53 in Kingston. Now, he sees a couple a week.
''The more it goes up, the more people drive off. I had a drive-off this morning," Armstrong said.
A sampling of other area stations finds a similar pattern. ''It was hardly happening before," said Imad Bahloul, manager of the AL Prime gas station in Rockland, but since prices went up, he has seen drive-offs ''two or three times a week."
The average cost of a gallon of gas was $2.37 last week, up 46 cents from this time last year, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
The increase can translate into a $40, $50, or even $60 loss for the gas station when a thief fills up and takes off. Kingston Mobil owner Salim Dib reports being hit with two $50 ''drive-offs" on a recent day.
Such losses, in turn, are squeezing already thin profit margins, owners say, and pushing more and more stations to consider jettisoning the ''pump before you pay" honor system.
''It would be too bad," said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores. ''There are only two things left on the honor system, a sit-down meal and a fill-up. If this continues the fill-ups will go."
Already the honor system is a thing of the past at most gas stations in California, where prices first topped $2 two years ago. At least one national chain has stopped the practice, and in Massachusetts the Honey Farms convenience store chain went to prepay last year.
''At first we did it just at night. Then we got rid of pump-before-you-pay altogether," said David Murdock, an executive vice president for Honey Farms. ''We lost some customers, but we felt it was worth it."
Drivers who steal gas fall under three general categories, according to Lenard. Some are young kids out for a thrill, and others are the working poor who can't afford price increases, but can't do without the fuel. And then, he said, there are the motorists who can afford to pay but are frustrated by the rising cost, especially in the current political climate.
''For them it's a matter of pump rage. People say, 'I'm fed up and not going take it anymore,' " Lenard said. ''But they're stealing from the link on the supply chain that has the least amount to do with the price."
''It's become a big, big problem," said Diana O'Donoghue, government relations director for the New England Convenience Store Association.
Last year, the annual cost of stolen gasoline averaged $2,141 at filling stations across the country, the highest figure ever recorded, with one in every 1,100 fill-ups a drive-off, according to the national convenience store group. So far this year, the rate is rising along with fuel prices. Most of the thefts occur during rush hour, or after dark, or on busy weekends, say station managers.
Because the gross profit margin on a gallon of gas is typically around a dime, and the net profit may be closer to 3 cents, losing the payment on a $30 sale may take 200 fill-ups to recoup, Lenard said.
The alternative for gas station owners, requiring drivers to pay before they pump, has its drawbacks, too. Customers who pay cash before pumping their gas are less likely to go back inside the store to buy a lottery ticket, cup of coffee or newspaper, said Leo Vercollone, owner of 20 convenience stores from New Hampshire to the South Shore. Store sales typically account for about 60 percent of gas station profits.
''We're in a very competitive business, why would we want to give our customers another hurdle to jump over?" said Vercollone. His stores still allow pump-before-paying, but he is considering a change.
The reason of course, is theft. Vercollone estimates $30,000 in gas was stolen from his stores last year. One location in particular lost $1,000 a month for several months.
''That's not sustainable," he said. ''Going to prepay is something we started asking ourselves about a year ago when drive-offs started getting really bad."
The increased problem has caught the attention of lawmakers. Since 1998, legislatures in 27 states have passed tougher laws against gas thieves, Lenard said. In Massachusetts, gas theft is considered a misdemeanor and the fine cannot exceed $250; typically it garners much less.
Last year, after gas prices in New England first crossed the $2 mark and incidents of theft spiked, the regional store association began pushing for a bill in Massachusetts calling for a mandatory $100 fine and up to three months in jail. The bill was sidelined but another has been introduced this year that calls for a mandatory 30-day license suspension for the first offense, and a 60-day suspension for a second offense, said O'Donoghue.
Paul O'Connell, executive director of the New England Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, said the demise of pump-first is probably inevitable. Already a handful of cities have mandated prepay, after police complained they were being tied up trying to chase down too many gas bandits.
''I think it's only a matter of time before it disappears altogether."