KEENE, N.H. (AP) – With gasoline thefts rising along with prices, more gas station owners are requiring customers to pay up before they fill up their tanks.

As record fuel prices cut into already tight profit margins, some gas station owners say just a handful of thefts, or “drive-offs,” in a week could cripple their businesses.

“We find that we have quite a few people that don’t want to pay for their gas anymore,” said James Robertson, owner of Cheshire Oil Inc. in Keene. “If you’re stealing 10 gallons of gas now, you’re stealing $40. Last year, if you stole 10 gallons it was a $20 loss.”

Last week, Robertson began requiring customers to prepay at the 12 T-Bird Mini Marts his company owns in southwestern New Hampshire and Vermont.

“A lot of our competitors have been doing this for some time and we’ve been putting this off longer than we should,” he said. “I guess we’ve been willing to think that people were honest, but the dollar losses are huge now with the cost of gas. Would you like somebody to come in and steal your lunch every day? How about your paycheck?”

Cheryl Erno, manager of Mac’s Market in Westmoreland, said some customers were upset with the station began requiring prepayment about a month ago.

“They were saying, ‘Why should I have to come in to pay? You know who I am,”‘ she said. “We tried to explain that we weren’t worried about them. We’re worried about the other people who steal from us.”

The average retailer sells 4,000 gallons of gas a day and pockets about a penny from each gallon, which adds up to $40 in daily profits, said Jeffrey Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores. Owners who switch to prepay systems may solve the problem of theft, but at the same time, doing so encourages the use of credit cards at the pump. That means more fees for the owners, which further cuts into their profits.

Customers who use credit cards to pay at the pump also aren’t coming in to the store for food and other items, he said.

“You have to make your money inside the store,” he said. “There’s more of an emphasis on selling coffee, sandwiches, anything. If you’re relying on gas to run your business, you’re in a very difficult situation right now.”

Gas theft in New Hampshire is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail. Even if a clerk writes down a license plate number of the station has a surveillance video, the chance of conviction is often slim.

“Even if you have video evidence they’ll say they forgot or the pump must have malfunctioned,” Lenard said. “Everybody forgets sometimes, but we see the increase in drive-offs every spring when gas prices spike, and it’s not because the nation suffers widespread memory loss.”

Information from: The Keene Sentinel,

AP-ES-05-04-08 1301EDT

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