Gas driveoffs not just about high prices

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 17, 2004

The slight ease in gas prices is good news to more than just drivers. With Mississippi prices as low as $1.77 Monday, Miss-Lou gas station owners and managers are hoping they will see fewer gas drive-offs, or thefts, but they know the problem won’t go away entirely.

&uot;Everyone has a lot in this business,&uot; said Hugh Denton, operations manager for three Miss-Lou Kaiser stores. &uot;When the price of gas goes up, they do too. But there are always a lot.&uot;

From January to May in 2002 the Natchez Police Department received 51 calls of gas drive-offs. During the same time period in 2003 the number was 67, this year there have been 66.

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It’s a nationwide problem, said Jeff Lenard, communications director with the National Association of Convenience Stores. In 2003 gas drive-offs cost the industry $112 million nationwide.

&uot;We have one just about every day on every shift,&uot; said Chasity Buckles, employee at Wag-A-Sack Grocery on Carter Street in Vidalia.

Buckles said the store will not turn on the pumps without receiving money or a credit card first.

She also said workers would park their cars at high-risk pumps, those out of the clerk’s sight, at night to prevent drive-offs.

Vidalia Police Capt. Frank Webb said the department received about two or three gas drive-off calls a week. When stores can report a tag number and the direction the car headed VPD officers try to stop the vehicle, Webb said.

&uot;Nine times out of 10 we aren’t going to see anything,&uot; he said.

Drivers charged with gas theft in Louisiana can receive up to six months in jail and/or a $500 fine. Repeat offenders can be charged with a felony.

In Mississippi the offense is a misdemeanor and repeat offenders can lose their driver’s license.

&uot;I’ve not known one single case where somebody lost their license,&uot; Denton said. &uot;These people are professionals. They will take their tag off, put on a stolen tag.&uot;

Denton said he warns his cashiers to look out for cars that pump gas with the door open, cars with no tag or instances when the driver stays in the car and the passenger pumps.

He said stores that have more than one exit are more subject to gas drive-offs and they are more likely to occur when the store is busy.

The location of the store can also contribute to the likelihood of a gas-drive off. The B-Kwik No. 10 on Homochitto Street does not have many gas thefts, manager Betty Masters said.

&uot;Not even once a week,&uot; Masters said. &uot;We have surveillance cameras, and we can watch them better.&uot;

Natchez Police Chief Mike Mullins said his office does catch offenders and get convictions.

&uot;We send an officer every time one is called in with tag information,&uot; Mullins said. &uot;Sometimes they run across them on the way to the call.&uot;

The storeowner must be the one to press charges. Officers cannot make an arrest on their own.

Mullins and Adams County Sheriff Ronny Brown said they see many cases where drivers simply forget to pay.

&uot;We stop them before they get out of the county and ask them to go back,&uot; Brown said. &uot;We get a call about every day about (gas drive-offs).&uot;

Denton said credit card machines on the pumps can sometimes lead drivers to think they have paid, when the card did not actually go through.

&uot;All cases are not dishonesty,&uot; he said. &uot;You can tell when it happens.&uot;