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    Massachusetts Feels the Pain of Drive-Offs

    Retailers debate the advantages of prepay.

    BOSTON -- Typically it might take a month for three drivers to steal gas from Sam's Mobil Mart on Massachusetts Avenue in stately and quiet North Andover, Mass., the Boston Globe reports.

    But one day two weeks ago, it took an hour.

    ''In the 14 years I've been here I've never seen it this bad," said gas station manager Bill Demelis. ''People are frustrated."

    With the average cost of unleaded, self-service gas spiking to a record $2.38 a gallon this week -- up 42 cents from this time last year -- service stations across the country are enduring a parallel jump in drive-offs. Those losses, in turn, are squeezing already thin profit margins and pushing more and more gas purveyors to consider jettisoning the ''pump before you pay" honor system in place in thousands of gas stations since self-service fueling became popular in the 1970s.

    ''It would be too bad," Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), told the paper. ''There are only two things left on the honor system, a sit-down meal and a fill-up. If this continues, the fill-ups will go."

    At least one national chain has jettisoned the practice, and in Massachusetts, the Honey Farms chain, which has stores in Worcester and Middlesex counties, went to prepay last year.

    ''At first we did it just at night. Then we got rid of 'pump before you pay' altogether," said David Murdock, the company's executive vice president. ''We lost some customers, but we felt it was worth it."

    Where drive-offs at most gas stations were committed two or three times a week in years past, many gas stations across New England are now enduring two or three thefts a day, said Diana O'Donoghue, government relations director for the New England Convenience Store Association. ''It's become a big, big problem."

    Last year, theft averaged $2,141 at filling stations, the highest amount ever recorded. One in every 1,100 fill-ups was a drive-off, according to NACS. So far this year that rate is rising along with fuel prices, which have jumped five of the last six months.

    Because the gross profit margin on gas is typically around a dime per gallon, and the net profit may be closer to 3 cents, the theft of $30 in fuel may take 200 fill-ups to recoup, Lenard said.

    The alternative for gas station owners is to do away with the pump-before-you-pay honor system and mandate that the roughly 30 percent of drivers who pay with cash buy their fuel at the register before they pump.

    But that has its drawbacks, too. Customers who have to walk into the store to pay for gas, then walk out to pump it, are less likely to buy a lottery ticket, a cup of coffee or the newspaper, said Leo Vercollone, owner of 20 convenience stores between New Hampshire and the South Shore. Store sales typically account for about 60 percent of gas station profits.

    ''We're in a very competitive business. Why would we want to give our customers another hurdle to jump over?" said Vercollone, whose stores still allow pump before you pay but who is considering changing the practice.

    The reason, of course, is theft. Vercollone estimates $30,000 in gas was stolen from his stores last year. One location alone lost $1,000 a month for several months.

    ''That's not sustainable," he told the Globe. ''Going to prepay is something we started asking ourselves about a year ago when drive-offs started getting really bad."

    Paul O'Connell, executive director of the New England Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, said the demise of pump-first is probably inevitable. Already a handful of cities have mandated prepay because police have complained they were being tied up trying to chase down too many gas bandits.

    ''The guy that's really suffering around here is the guy on the interstate," O'Connell said, referring to the increased number of drivers who drive off and make a quick getaway on to the highway and out of the area. ''I think it's only a matter of time before it disappears altogether."

    Predictably, as drive-offs have reached a tipping point, the problem has caught the attention of lawmakers. Since 1998, legislatures in 27 states have passed tougher laws against gas thieves, Lenard said. In Massachusetts, a gas theft is considered a misdemeanor and the fine cannot exceed $250. Typically, it garners much less.

    Last year, after gas prices first crossed the $2 mark and theft spiked, the New England Convenience Store Association began pushing a bill in Massachusetts calling for a mandatory $100 fine and up to three months in jail. That bill was sidelined, but another has been introduced this year that calls for a mandatory 30-day license suspension for the first offense and a 60-day suspension for a second offense, said O'Donoghue.

    Other states taking measures against drive-offs include Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

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