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NEW YORK -- As the price of gasoline continues climbing without signs of recovery anytime soon, gasoline thefts are multiplying at unprecedented levels, reported the Associated Press.
According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. average retail price for regular gasoline increased this week by 3.1 cents from the previous week to $2.16 per gallon as of June 20, which is 22.4 cents higher than this time last year. This is the third consecutive week of rising prices.
Consumer angst over the ballooning gas prices is growing as well, with drive-offs increasing in turn.
“This is the worst I've seen,” said Linda Fulton, manager for an E-Z Mart station in Wake Village, Texas. “I am $111 short this week, and it's all from drive-offs. Normally, I wouldn't lose this much in a month.”
Gasoline theft costs gas stations nationwide about $237 million in 2004, or $2,141 per store, according to the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).
“We're not sure if 2005 will be another record year for gas theft, but even if incidences of theft remain the same, the impact will be greater because of the higher price of gas,” said Jeff Lenard, NACS spokesperson.
Many stations have resisted requiring customers to pay in advance for gas, Lenard said, as they earn the bulk of their money on purchases customers make inside their stores.
"In most cases, retailers are lucky to make a penny or two a gallon," he said. "So when someone drives away with $30 of gas, it can take hundreds of fill-ups to break even."
Many state legislatures, under rising pressure from businesses across the country, are fighting back. Eleven states have currently either increased penalties for gasoline theft or are considering it, said Christie Rewey, energy policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.
The stiffest penalties call for up to six months' driving suspension for a first-time offense and fines of $500 to $1,000. Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and Virginia have already signed tougher measures into law this year, and a similar bill has passed in Oregon, but has yet to be signed.
"Gas theft is one of the uncalculated consequences of high prices, especially in urban areas, and it's hitting home for a lot of people," said New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, D-Westchester, one of the advocates of a New York bill for stricter drive-off penalties.
New York is one of the six states looking to suspend a drivers' license after one offense. With the rise in fuel prices, gasoline theft "appears increasingly to be a semi-white collar crime," Brodsky said.
NACS spokesperson Lenard agreed.
"It used to be kids doing it for the thrill of it, or to appear cool," Lenard said. "But now it's every demographic, every type of car."