TJ has been experiencing an increased number of “drive offs” at his service station. These are customers who drive off without paying for their fuel – sometimes in broad daylight.
In recent months, there has been an increase in the number of people who fill up their cars and then drive off without paying. This used to happen occasionally at night, but now it is also occurring during the day.
Despite each incident being reported to the police (and clearly there are a lot of false number plates out there) I have yet to experience my first prosecution in a “drive off”. It could also be that the police are so run off their feet with “proper crimes” that our small incidents are not being investigated at all.
There was an article in one of the major newspapers a few weeks ago about this issue, and it seems that it is becoming a problem nationwide. Even TV series from the UK featuring the police and their investigations have dealt with such incidents as part of their story lines, so perhaps it is also becoming a major problem overseas – even worldwide.
I suppose that the higher the price of petrol goes, the more desperate people become and the more this new type of “survival crime” is going to occur.
I have thought of many ways of trying to deal with this issue, which is currently running at roughly three incidents a month, or about R800 a month.
The first “solution” would be to ask for payment up front, before the fuel is dispensed. There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, customers would immediately get annoyed at the fact that they are not being trusted. And it would lead to less fuel being sold. How do you calculate payment for a full tank of petrol up front? Instead of saying, “Fill it up”, people will ask for a set amount of fuel.
The next option would be to ask for the car keys, and only give them back after payment has been made. Again, I foresee angry customers on the forecourt with trust issues.
Another “solution” I have witnessed at my local shopping centre involves guards who stand with a pole, and attached to the bottom of the pole is a flat hinged steel plate with spikes welded to it. This can be pushed under a car driving away, rendering the vehicle useless with a blown tyre. The problem with this rather drastic idea is that you would have to employ more staff to ensure there is always a “guard” around watching the cars. That would certainly cost a lot more than R800 a month.
You could also place such a spiked plate under the wheel of the car while it is being filled up, and remove it once the payment has gone through. The major danger with this one is that the petrol attendant is sure to forget occasionally to remove the plate and spikes! Considering the price of tyres these days, I can see the cost of replacing tyres far exceeding the loss suffered from “drive offs” – not to mention the wrath of the aggrieved customers!
After much analysis, it seems that fuel station owners are being held to ransom. Some customers will keep driving off without paying as there seems little or no policing of these crimes. Attempts to prevent them from happening will just anger my current customers or cause an increase in my operating costs, so until my losses start running into serious figures, I guess I’ll just have to live with the problem.
A fellow fuel retailer had an incident recently when an attendant went running after a non-paying vehicle, trying to stop it. After the car had managed to get away, it had to make a U-turn to get back onto the main road, so the attendant saw the chance and threw a rock at the car, smashing a side window. The driver did not stop, but drove off with a damaged car.
The next day the poor retailer was faced with an irate husband of the offender, who came and paid the R50 for petrol because “his wife may have forgotten to pay the previous night”. But the retailer was also presented with a heavy bill for a replacement window. The two parties are now going to have to let their lawyers sort things out. In the meantime, everyone is losing even more money.
It seems that sometimes there is no justice. I am, however, a firm believer in karma and that what goes around will eventually come back to bite you.
* “TJ” is an anonymous service station owner who writes for us on a regular basis about all things related to running a forecourt.