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    Drive-Offs Rising in Virginia

    Station owners, police seeing more people pumping but not paying.

    SUFFOLK, Va. -- In one week last month, four people pumped gas at the Bennett's Creek Citgo station in Chuckatuck in Suffolk, Va., and drove away without paying.

    "It was really bad," Mirta Fuentes, a clerk there, told the Hampton Roads (Va.) Daily Press. "If there is too much going on, you can't read the license plate number and they just go on."

    Fuentes isn't the only one who has noticed that more people these days are not paying for the gas they pump.

    Gas station managers and police from Suffolk to Newport News to James City County have also noticed it, and they say high gas prices have something to do with it.

    "It just seems like a general trend in the last couple of months or so," said Maj. Stan Stout with the James City Police Department.

    In Suffolk, drive-offs have risen 37 percent in two years -- from 144 in the first six months of 2003 to 197 already this year.

    "It's very difficult to catch them," said Lt. D.J. George with the Suffolk Police Department. "The clerk is usually very busy, and it's always a few minutes before they realize that somebody is driving off."

    Gas prices skyrocketed in April to an average of $2.20 per gallon in Virginia, according to the AAA. Monday Virginia's average price was $2.12 -- still up 25 cents from $1.87 per gallon at this time last year, according to VirginiaGasPrices.com.

    The gas cheaters cost owners of local gas stations and convenience stores millions of dollars.

    "We are talking about the vicinity of $6 million to $7 million this year," said Mike O'Connor, president of the Richmond-based Virginia Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.

    The association -- with 615 members who own about 4,500 gas stations and convenience stores in the state -- has lobbied state lawmakers to get tougher on gas cheaters.

    People who are caught once face fines up to $100. If caught twice, they will lose their driver's license for 30 days and face fines up to $100. Starting July 1, the fines will increase to up to $250.

    In Newport News, police officers have told gas station owners to install video cameras, ask for prepayment and be more cautious.

    "But then you punish the good customers," said John Dodson, who manages gas stations in Suffolk and doesn't want to mandate prepayment.

    Stacy Leithead, at the Zooms headquarters in Hampton, told the Daily Press: "We try to greet the customers at the pump and make personal contact. That's about all we can do."

    Zooms has 14 convenience stores on the Peninsula and in Gloucester and Surry counties.

    Gas cheaters tend to target stations next to interstates, Stout said.

    Bob Story, who manages four Sentry Food Mart stores on the Peninsula and 25 in the region, sees more gas drive-offs at his store next to Interstate 64 on J. Clyde Morris Boulevard.

    If the theft continues, he will consider installing cameras, he said, which record details that busy employees may miss.

    "I know they get busy," Stout said of the clerks, who often catch only a glimpse of license plates before the thieves take off, "but they need to pay attention."


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