Store owners fume over drive-offs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 25, 2005

Many of the service stations on Fort Dale Road have been seeing a dramatic increase in the number of gas drive-offs over the past few months.

Whether it is the rising cost of gasoline or the lowering of the public's honesty, this is becoming a costly problem for many Greenville gas stations.

"It's not just out-of-town people who are doing this," Janet Wilson said, manager of the Roadmaster BP Station on Fort Dale Road.

"We see plenty of Butler County tags whenever this happens."

She said when a cashier is busy with several customers both inside and at the pump, it can be extremely difficult to keep an eye on everyone.

"So, we'll have people who purposely watch the cashiers and wait for them to be distracted, and then they'll drive off without paying for their gas," Wilson said.

"It's not like it happens just at certain times of the day or week.

It can happen at any time, but, of course, the most common occurrences take place around lunch or 5 p.m., when people are getting off work."

One of the most common reasons believed to be the cause of this increase includes the rising costs of gasoline.

"Some people just don't have the money," Frankie Womack, assistant manager at the Chevron Station on Fort Dale Road, said. "However, this is not always the case.

I have seen people in sports utility vehicles and expensive sports cars drive off without paying.

If they can afford an SUV, then why can't they pay for the gas?"

She said she watched one SUV pump $72 worth of gas before pulling off without paying.

"That person knew exactly what he was doing," she said. "I have even seen people pull into the station, then back out onto Fort Dale Road so that we would not be able to see their car tags. All of this just makes it harder for the honest person."

Wilson agreed that some people just don't seem to care.

"Don't think that it's just people in passenger vehicles who are doing this," she said. "We have had people in U-Haul's and other rental trucks, and even people pulling boats to do this."

She went on to explain that very recently, one young man in a green truck with a Butler County tag, drove off after pumping $3.06 in gas.

"He actually waved at me before he left," she said, shaking her head.

When asked what the service stations might have to do in order to curtail these thefts, both Wilson and Womack said that they would have to go to a pre-pay system.

"This makes a lot of people angry," Wilson said.

"Most people find it inconvenient to have to come inside the store in order to pay, especially if they don't have a debit or credit card.

We have had several people to drive away before pumping gas when they discover they have pulled up to a pre-pay pump.

They'll leave us and go to another station. However, most service stations already have pre-pay during evening hours even now."

Womack wants the public to understand that once a person has pre-paid for gas, the pump will automatically shut off at the paid amount.

Therefore, the person does not have to worry about going over or under the desired amount.

"The nozzle will automatically shut off, so it's not as hard to do as many people think," she said.

According to Lt. Garry Martin of the Greenville Police Department, the rising cost of gas prices is certainly one major factor in the increased number of drive-offs.

"There are several other explanations as well," he said.

"Many of these offenders are in stolen vehicles, and they're coming from another state.

We have found some to be runaways who are too afraid to stop.

Then you do find some people who just run out of money while traveling."

He added, "Of course, that is still no excuse for stealing."

When asked about the police department's role in this, Martin said that they follow up on the reports, but they can only investigate as far as they can with the information they are given.

"Sometimes, we may not have a complete tag number, for example, and that can really hinder pin-pointing a particular vehicle," he said. "If you're just looking for a blue car, it can be very difficult."

He went on to explain that Alabama has laws that can suspend an offender's driver's license for driving off without paying for gas.

"We have caught quite a few," he said.

It is obvious, however, to Wilson and Womack that this is a big problem that only seems to be getting worse.

"I just don't understand how people can be so dishonest," Wilson said. "What is happening to people's morals?"