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Drive-offs have station owner spinning wheels

May 21, 2007|by KAREN HANNA

HAGERSTOWN - A sign warning that the BP gas station on Dual Highway will prosecute drive-offs didn't stop drivers from putting about $200 worth of fuel in their tanks and speeding off without paying in recent weeks.

Owner V.J. Ahaja said he doesn't know what will.

"If police had a more gas station-friendly attitude, I think drive-offs would be much less, but police can't do much, I don't think," Ahaja said.

Maryland State Police Sgt. K. Scheer said drive-offs have increased as gas prices have gone up, but Washington County Sheriff's Lt. Tim Baker said he has seen no more than usual. When motorists are able to leave without paying, Baker said gas station policies are partly to blame.

"We've told them for years, 'Make them prepay,' and they don't want to hear that," Baker said.

In the last two weeks, drivers stole about $200 worth of gas from the Dual Highway BP, said Ahaja, who was working Sunday.

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On Sunday, the cheapest octane fuel at Ahaja's station was $3.259. Other gas stations on the road were charging $3.099.

A clerk at a gas station down the road said he doesn't believe the gas prices are causing a spike in thefts.

After someone steals gas, Baker said deputies track down the owner of the vehicle involved and usually tell the person to pay up. Baker said it's hard to prove who stole the gas, and tracking down the vehicle is only possible if police have information from the license plate.

At the BP station, Ahaja pointed out that not all drive-offs really are thefts. About 10 percent of the time, he said, the motorist just doesn't know the store's machines failed to register a credit card.

The gas stealers have a system, Ahaja said. They park in the pump farthest from the store, pump, then search their pockets as if looking for cash or credit cards to complete the purchase. Once Ahaja diverts his gaze, they're gone.

"The moment he sees there's no traffic coming from there," Ahaja said, motioning toward the westbound lanes of Dual Highway, "he gets in his car, and he's vanished."

Ahaja said the red-and-white sign in his store's window does no good, and he wishes police did more to prosecute drive-offs involving vehicles owned by people with criminal records.

For the gas station owner, theft is costly. He said he makes only 5 to 10 cents per gallon.

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