Customers drive off with gas

By Mark Rivera

In the past two weeks, there have been at least four drive-offs, incidences of people pumping gas without paying, at Champaign-Urbana gas stations.

Although Patrick Connolly, assistant chief of police for the Urbana Police Department, did not think this was a high number, he said that all of the 19 active fuel stations in Urbana have been affected by gasoline theft.

“With the increase in fuel costs, more and more people are thinking of ways to try and avoid paying,” Connolly said.

And it’s no wonder – gas prices peaked nationally at about $4 per gallon in July, according to the Energy Information Administration Web site.

Still, not all gasoline theft is intentional, Connolly said. Some people simply forget to pay or try to pay unsuccessfully with a credit or debit card. Some gas station owners and managers think otherwise.

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“It’s definitely the money,” said James Levendahl, manager of the family-run Mach 1 gas station at the intersection of Florida Avenue and Philo Road.

“As soon as the price of gas went up, so did the amount of drive-offs,” he said.

According to Levendahl, the average cost of a drive-off is $60 to $100, but they can be even more costly. James Randolph, junior in LAS and employee of the Marathon gas station at the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Green Street, said a co-worker lost $170 due to three drive-offs in one day.

“If you continue to pump gas and act like you forget to pay, we will make everybody pre-pay” said LaToya Cooper, Randolph’s co-worker.

In fact, pre-pay may just be the answer to the problem of drive-offs.

“The simple solution would be to not allow customers to pump unless they pay first,” Connolly said.

Many businesses are wary of pre-pay systems, though, because they feel that it is an inconvenience to the customer.

Whether or not this is the case, many stations have implemented other strategies to reduce drive-offs, such as video surveillance and assigning multiple employees during peak hours.

“I have a video system that monitors every single pump, license plates, faces, vehicles,” Levendahl said. “If you’re there long enough to pump gas, it’ll get you.”

Levendahl and other area gas station managers have helped to change Urbana police protocol regarding gasoline theft.

“Before, the police would just take a report, not really looking at a drive-off as theft,” Levendahl said. “A drive-off is now a regular call of service.”

This has meant that instead of waiting an hour or more to dispatch a police officer to a victim station, Urbana police immediately send out officers to take down license plates and descriptions of the offending vehicle.

That information is then sent to all police stations in the area, Connolly said.

Yet, if you believe it is OK to steal gas because it only hurts billion dollar corporations, think again. Because Levendahl’s Mach 1 station is family-run, he says drive-offs directly affect his personal income.

“People think stealing gas only affects the gas companies, but it affects the little people too,” Levendahl said. “It’s money out of my pocket.”