Greeneville Police Chief Mack Jones said this week that gasoline theft incidents increased substantially here from June to July.
The police chief said Greeneville police received 21 reports of gasoline drive-offs in June and 38 reports in July.
"An increase of 17 reports in one month is significant," Chief Jones said.
Through Aug. 24, he noted, the Greeneville Police Department had received another 21 gasoline drive-off reports for the current month.
"It looks like we're on pace to receive about the same number of reports in August as we did in July," the chief said.
Some local gasoline retailers may be suffering from gasoline thefts more than are
others, Jones said.
"We will continue to investigate these incidents as we do all other thefts and will prosecute those individuals we apprehend to the fullest extent of the law," he stressed.
Jones also said that, in addition to fines and jail sentences, those convicted of gasoline thefts can have their driver's licenses suspended for up to six months for the first offense.
Up in County, Too
Greene County Sheriff Steve Burns said the numbers of gas drive-off reports taken by his deputies also have spiked recently, increasing from 28 in June to 38 in July.
Burns said analysis of gas drive-off reports taken by Greene County deputies for the first seven months of the year seemed to show that gasoline thefts increased during the peak summer driving months of May (29 reports), June (28 reports) and July (38 reports).
As of Thursday, Sheriff Burns said, his deputies had taken 25 more gas drive-off reports so far during August.
"We've got six days to go in the month," Burns said. "It will be interesting to see if the number of reports we take will be more or fewer than we did in July."
Burns said he also was surprised to learn that his deputies had taken a total of 193 gas drive-off reports this year.
"I didn't realize that it had been that many," the sheriff said.
He noted that the Sheriff's Department received reports of 22 gas drive-offs in January, followed by 13 each in the months of February and March.
After that two-month lull, he said, the number of reports increased to 25 in April before the summer driving season began and gasoline prices began setting new records.
Sheriff Burns also said that during recent months, many of the gas drive-offs took place at Greene County convenience stores located along Interstate 81.
That, he said, might suggest that those who carried out those thefts were people who were passing through Greene County, rather than local residents.
Retailers' Losses Nationally
Nationwide, gasoline thefts cost retailers $237 million last year - about $2,141 per store - according to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).
The 2004 nationwide losses from gas drive-offs were up more than twice the $112 million reported in 2003, according to the NACS.
Locally, Allen Johnson, of Greeneville Oil & Petroleum Inc., which operates more than 70 convenience stores between Abingdon, Va., and Knoxville, said his company's losses from gasoline drive-offs are up dramatically this year.
Company-wide, Johnson said, Greeneville Oil lost about $20,000 to gasoline drive-offs during the first six months of 2004.
For the first six months of 2005, however, the company's losses to gas drive-offs have totaled about $30,000.
Johnson said the problem has gotten so bad that some employees of his company's retail outlets have sometimes stopped reporting gasoline thefts to local police.
"It's a big problem for the police as well as for us," Johnson said, noting that he had discussed the matter with Greeneville Police Department officials, who indicated to him that locating those who drive off without paying for gasoline is often difficult.
Chris Marsh, president and CEO of Greeneville-based Marsh Petroleum Co., Inc., said his firm, which operates 20 convenience stores and four truck stops in East Tennessee, also has experienced a spike in gasoline drive-offs in recent weeks.
Marsh Petroleum operates Kwik Stop markets here.
Marsh said the problem was particularly bad in the Knoxville area, where a number of the company's outlets are located.
He said his company's losses from gasoline drive-offs increased "five-fold" during July. He declined to specify specific dollar amounts.
Marsh also said not all gasoline drive-off incidents are reported to police.
Lee Hudson, secretary-treasurer of Allen Petroleum Company, Inc., said his company has witnessed a steady increase in gasoline drive-offs in recent months.
Hudson, whose company operates seven Okee Dokee Markets in Greene, Jefferson and Sevier counties that sell gasoline, described the increase in gasoline drive-offs in recent years as a "steady grind."
He also noted that the number of gas drive-offs experienced by his company had "quadrupled" in the last six years.
In addition to eating away at retailers' financial bottom lines, Hudson said, gas drive-offs tie up police officers and sheriff's deputies who are needed to respond to more serious crimes and for patrolling.
Hudson said he did not mean to minimize the seriousness of gasoline thefts. With the recent gas price increases, he said thefts of gasoline totaling $50 to $60 are becoming commonplace.
'Really Squeezing Retailers'
Marylee Booth, executive director of the Tennessee Oil Marketers Association, said such losses are damaging similar businesses across the state.
"This is really squeezing retailers," she said. "People need to remember that these aren't major oil companies. They're just small, independent businesses."
Booth said a state law that has been in effect since 2000 enables judges to impose a six-month driver's license suspension on anyone convicted of the first offense of theft in connection with a gasoline drive-off.
For those convicted of the second offense, she said, the law states that the court must impose a driver's license suspension of up to six months.
For a third offense, Booth said, the penalty is a one-year driver's license suspension in addition to a fine and possible jail time.
Allen Johnson said he also is concerned about the possible human cost of gasoline drive-offs.
He explained that he recently gave chase to a young woman whom he saw drive away from one of his stores without paying for gasoline.
He said that the young woman, who may have been a teenager, lost control of her vehicle and almost overturned it while fleeing.
At that point, Johnson said, he stopped pursuing the vehicle, but gave the license number of the vehicle to police.
The trade publication Convenience Store News also reported recently that an Alabama convenience store owner was killed on Aug. 19 when he attempted to stop a vehicle that was fleeing his business without paying for $52 in fuel.
Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, said the death of Husain "Tony" Caddi, 54, shows that "soaring gas prices make people angry enough to steal and that gas retailers are tired of putting up with it."
Caddi, owner of Texaco market in Fort Payne, Ala., was fatally injured when run over by a rear wheel of a Jeep-style sport utility vehicle that he attempted to prevent from fleeing his business.
The NACS also says thieves stole an average of one in every 1,100 gas-tank fill-ups last year. And that number is expected to rise with gasoline prices, the organization says.
"We're in uncharted territory now," Lenard was quoted as saying in the Aug. 24 edition of Convenience Store News.
"We've never seen prices this high before, and it's too early to tell how it will affect thefts. I know that we are seeing a record number of retailers switching to pre-pay.
They find they just can't take the thefts anymore."
Booth, of the Tennessee Oil Marketers Association, said during a Wednesday telephone interview that her personal opinion is that retailers in areas where gasoline drive-offs have become a major problem should consider requiring customers to pay before filling their tanks.
She noted that many members of the association fear requiring pre-payment might alienate loyal customers.
"But I don't know any other way to combat this," she said. "They (customers) have to understand that this is a major problem."
Lenard was quoted in the Aug. 24 online version of Convenience Store News as stating that news reports indicated that gas thefts have soared across Virginia recently.
He said the worst (theft) problems are at stations near interstate highways where thieves can make quick getaways.
To protect themselves from such thefts, some Virginia stations are requiring customers paying cash to hand over the money before filling their tanks.
Retailers don't like requiring customers to pre-pay for gas because, they say, customers then may be less likely to enter their stores or will buy their gas elsewhere.
Michael O'Connor, president of the Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery
Association, was quoted by Convenience Store News as saying his group has lobbied for tougher laws and for stickers on pumps in that state that warn people they could lose their licenses, pay a $250 fine, and get jail time if they "pump and run."
That publication also reported that businesses across the country are taking steps to fight gasoline thefts.
One measure is an attempt to get clerks to pay closer attention and require customers after nightfall to pay before pumping gasoline.
Greeneville Oil's Johnson said store personnel on duty when gasoline drive-offs occur are held responsible and have the amounts of the store's loses deducted from their paychecks.
Another step is to use an intercom system to greet customers.
"To most people, a 'good morning' just sounds like 'good morning,'" Lenard said. "But to someone thinking about stealing gas, it sounds like, 'We're watching you.'"
Some stores have considered returning to full service stations. Others might hire extra clerks to roam the lot to keep an eye on the pumps - and to encourage customers to come inside for coffee or a newspaper, according to Convenience Store News.
A few cities - including Twin Falls, Idaho, and Myrtle Beach and Mount Pleasant, S.C. - actually have mandated pre-payment for gasoline, according to Convenience Store News.
Other cities have considered it, and many retailers have voluntarily switched to pre-pay in metropolitan areas such as New York, Las Vegas, Chicago and Atlanta, the trade publication reported.
Chris Marsh, of Marsh Petroleum, said his company had not yet decided what additional measures to take to combat the increase in gasoline drive-offs.
He noted that 48 percent of gasoline purchases made at his company's outlets had been made using credit cards in July. Such customers, he said, would not be affected if a decision is made to require pre-payment for gasoline purchases.