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Fuel Theft: Why is it so Easy?

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November 11th, 2019

If you’re like most people, you’ve gassed your motor up hundreds of times without once even considering the idea of getting straight back in and driving away without paying. And yet that’s what thousands of people do, often completely brazenly. They’re right to be brazen about it – according to recent research by Crown Oil, an incredible 99% of fuel thieves are never caught, let alone prosecuted. So, all of those scary-looking stickers you might have seen warning that the police will come for you if you don’t pay – it turns out they’re not quite as effective as you might think.

How reliable is this data?
The research relies on the police’s own figures. A total of forty-five police forces were sent freedom of information requests, and twenty-three of them replied. In the last year, there have been 25,614 fuel thefts across the UK. In practice, the figure is probably much higher – some fuel thefts are never reported, because the petrol station operators (understandably) don’t think the police are going to be able to track down the culprits.

Aren’t things getting better?
You might think that technological advancements have made the situation better. And you’d be right – there has been a year-on-year decline of around 11% in this sort of crime. This is largely thanks to the introduction of ‘pay at pump’ systems on the pumps furthest from the till. For a long time, many stations implemented a low-tech version of this by simple closing those pumps with a big metal sign and a few cones. Nowadays, things are a bit more sophisticated – but you might still run into cashiers who are wary about turning your pump on, especially at night-time. This is because they’re worried about the ear-bending they’ll receive when the site manager turns up in the morning. If you’re filling up a massive jerry-can, this is especially troublesome – and van drivers might find themselves under particular suspicion, as they can fill up with a ton’s worth of diesel and drive off into the night.

Another advance comes in the form of superior cameras. But these are still extremely expensive, and they rarely get a good enough image of the thief to prosecute. While drive-offs are a common problem, they don’t represent a large enough chunk of outgoings to justify an investment in super-fancy cameras. This may change, however, as modern camera technology rolls out onto forecourts.

Why can’t you make an ID?
There are several reasons why it’s difficult to ID a would-be thief. Firstly, they’re likely to have their face covered by a baseball cap, and their license plate will be falsified. If you’d like your pump to be activated promptly, then you should be sure that you have your face as visible as possible. Being a woman, let’s face it, also helps.

If a petrol station is by a motorway junction, this is especially tricky. In the twenty minutes it takes for the police to arrive, they can be several junctions away. Catching the thief would require marshalling dozens of police officers across multiple forces – which, for the sake of a few quid, isn’t going to happen.

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