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    Drive-Offs Continue to Rise

    Gas prices to blame in Virginia, St. Louis area.

    ALEXANDRIA, Va. – As gas prices continue to climb, so do drive-off numbers.

    Jeff Lenard, of the Alexandria-based National Association of Convenience Stores, said gas thefts have soared across Virginia, according to media reports. He says the worst problems are at stations near interstates where thieves can make quick getaways.

    To protect from theft, stations are requiring customers paying cash to hand over the money before gassing up. Retailers don't like requiring customers to prepay for gas because they're less likely to enter their stores to buy coffee, sodas, chips or other items.

    President of the Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery Association, Michael O'Connor, says his group has lobbied for tougher laws and stickers on pumps that warn people they could lose their licenses, pay a $250 fine and get jail time if they pump and run.

    Meanwhile, police across the St. Louis region are reporting nearly double the number of drive-offs over the past year, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported.

    Stations in unincorporated St. Louis County reported 88 theft cases last month, more than twice the 39 reported the July before. The total for the first seven months this year was 479, about 91 percent more than the 251 reported in the same period last year.

    In St. Charles County, sheriff's deputies counted 17 thefts last month -- an increase from 12 in July last year. In Fairview Heights, stations reported 14 drive-offs from January to July last year. This year, there were 26.

    Businesses are taking some intermediate steps to fight theft. One is to get clerks to pay closer attention. And customers after nightfall must pay first.

    Another step is to use an intercom system to greet customers.

    "To most people, a 'good morning' just sounds like 'good morning,'" Lenard said. "But to someone thinking about stealing gas, it sounds like, 'We're watching you.'"

    Some stores have considered a return to full service. Others might hire extra clerks to roam the lot to keep an eye on the pumps -- and to encourage customers to come inside for coffee or a newspaper.

    A few cities across the United States -- including Twin Falls, Idaho, and Myrtle Beach and Mount Pleasant, S.C. -- have mandated prepayment. Others have considered it. Many retailers have voluntarily switched to pre-pay in metropolitan areas such as New York, Las Vegas, Chicago and Atlanta.

    Nationwide, gasoline thefts cost retailers $237 million last year -- about $2,141 per store -- according to the national association. Experts say thieves swiped one in every 1,100 fill-ups last year. And the number is expected to rise with the prices.

    "We're in uncharted territory now," Lenard said. "We've never seen prices this high before, and it's too early to tell how it will affect thefts." He added, "I know that we are seeing a record number of retailers switching to pre-pay. They find they just can't take the thefts anymore."

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