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Fuel Theft: A victimless crime that is crippling small business

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The Victorian Government’s  parliamentary inquiry into fuel theft at service stations comes as record numbers of drive-offs plague operators around Australia.

Police Minister Wade Noonan announced the move this month as the Australian Association of Convenience Stores released its 2015 State of the Industry report showing petrol theft was up 6.8 per cent nationally for the 2014 calendar year.

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Image by John Phelan

The crime on average now costs the convenience industry about $66 million, creating major flow-on effects for franchisees and store operators from the city to the outback.

Association chief executive Jeff Rogut said all states needed to take urgent action on an issue that hit motorists and small business directly in the hip pocket.

“Petrol is a very low margin product, meaning petrol theft has a direct and significant impact on retailers,” he said.

“On average store owners are losing around $220 a week from people driving off without paying for petrol.

“It comes straight off the bottom line, besides which there are safety issues.”

DRIVE-OFFS: A NATIONWIDE PROBLEM

It’s an inquiry other states will be watching keenly.

In NSW, data has been confused by changes in late 2013 requiring service stations to report theft by completing a form to be submitted to police using old-school facsimile technology.

Operators, the business community and the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research have raised  concerns over the change, which they say reduces reporting and falsely represents the true extent of the problem.

Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research analysis suggest fraud across the state is steadily increasing, with petrol theft its most common form behind credit card fraud.

BOSCAR research published in December shows fuel drive-offs made up 30 per cent of the recorded incidences of fraud in the previous year, bucking the trend of decreases in other types of crime.

One fifth of the cases involved using stolen or swapped licence plates in an attempt to stop identification.

The largest theft occurred when a truck driver paid a fuel bill of about $200, then returned to his vehicle and took another $477 of fuel before driving off without paying.

In Queensland, ongoing incidents like the case of the  petrol thief caught on camera at Tweed Heads this month show how the crisis has escalated over recent years, with police there also linking the problem strongly to vehicle plate theft.

The number of reported drive-offs in Queensland tripled in the five years to 2014, with most incidents concentrated in the more densely populated south-eastern corner of the state including Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Logan.

The Service Stations Association’s Colin Long has said the increase is a sign more people are doing it so tough they are choosing the break the law.

But Michael Roth from the RACQ said while high fuel prices were a factor, drive-offs remained a crime.

He said there were 5000 drive-off thefts in south-east Queensland in the year to September 2014.

"Fuel prices are high so there is more to be gained. But really this is a criminal activity and it's strongly linked with vehicle theft and number plate theft.”

"This is not a story about poor motorists taking fuel. This is a story about criminal activity.”

On the west coast, the Motor Trade Association of WA has estimated the annual cost of fuel drive-offs at $6 million.

Association chief Steve Moir said police lacked the resources to follow up on reports and called for changes in the law to make fuel theft a crime.

A VICTIMLESS CRIME?

In the end, leading industry figures agree it’s the retailers and the customers who pay the price for fuel theft.

At the very least, small businesses – and their staff – are hurting, and not just in the hip pocket.

United Petroleum Casey franchise owner Fady Rezk was injured on February 3 when he was carried for 30m on the bonnet of a car during a  petrol drive-off.

He said there were about six drive-offs a week at his service station.

“Three weeks ago we had a drive-off on diesel from a truck that took $745, and that’s still under the premium for insurance.

“People think the one paying for the fuel is a big, huge company, but actually it comes from our salaries.”

Michael Roth in Queensland said higher fuel prices were a likely result if the problem continued unchecked.

THE SOLUTION

It’s uncertain what  solutions to fuel theft the Victorian inquiry will find.

Jeff Rogut believes the answer could include a combination of tougher laws and new technology.

However he doesn’t think forcing retailers to install costly prepay systems is the answer, because they limit opportunities to sell consumers other convenience products at the register after filling up.

Instead, Rogut has suggested options including a loss of licence demerit points and heavy fines.

Other systems which have shown potential in areas including Queensland’s highest risk spots include having customers look at a closed-circuit TV camera before the pump is turned on to allow easy identification.

For Victorian operators and others nationwide, the consensus is that as they continue to search for the solution on how to stop the steady erosion of their bottom line, the inquiry’s December reporting deadline can’t come soon enough.

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