One of the most important aspects of running a service station is the safety of staff, and in such a unique retail environment, the kinds of crimes encountered are also unique. The ‘drive-off’, or petrol theft, costs the industry around $66 million every year.
According to the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores (AACS), industry statistics show that drive-offs are on the rise, despite falling fuel prices in Australia. Add to that the violent, intimidating nature of the crime, where staff and customers are at risk in a hold up situation, and implementing the right security measures is incredibly important within the industry.
AACS CEO Jeff Rogut said the impact of crime against service stations was a significant issue.
“It’s huge, it’s a major cost to the industry and those small businesses because at the end of the day, the franchisee pays – the corporation doesn’t – and that’s a real issue,” he said.
“We used to say petrol theft was the issue, but it’s now crime. Crime against convenience stores – be it petrol theft, robberies, or tap and go.”
Fuel theft is actually considered a civil matter, and Police Media WA said that while drive-offs “do not ordinarily involve police action … on a case by case basis, police may investigate and prefer stealing charges where reliable credible evidence exists. An example of this may be where it is identified the offender was driving a stolen vehicle and admitted never intending to pay”.
An inquiry completed by the Parliament of Victoria into fuel drive-offs was published in March 2016, with 30 submissions received, including information from service station owners and franchisees, AACS, Crime Stoppers Victoria, the Australian Federal Police and the Australasian Small Business Commissioner.
Recommendations determined by the Law Reform, Road and Community Safety Committee at the conclusion of the inquiry included a state-wide education campaign developed between Victoria Police, Crime Stoppers Victoria and the fuel retail industry; six monthly forums to discuss the problem and prevention techniques; and for the Government to consider measures to assist the fuel retail sector to implement pre-payment.
However, pre-payment is a controversial solution for those within the industry.
Why not use pre-payment?
It may seem like the obvious answer, but Mr Rogut insists there are other considerations to be made before accepting this as an easy option as there are on-flow effects for purchases in-store.
“The police will say that’s an easy solution for drive offs – where it was tried some years ago in Canada the sales in stores dropped by over 30 per cent because people don’t need to go in,” he explained.
“It basically eliminates the ‘convenience’ of the convenience store.” While there is some uptake of pre-payment, Mr Rogut said it is not usually around the clock.
“Yes, it is a solution – some retailers certainly are using it at different times of the day where they may have experienced a high volume of petrol theft or drive offs. But it’s not something as an industry we’d encourage as an ongoing practice.”
“It just inconveniences consumers and doesn’t encourage people to go into the store,”
Mr Rogut explained that pre-paid or pay-at-the-pump systems can present opportunity for fraud, with international retailers having found it less than perfect.
“We do a lot of research constantly on this, and in the US, petrol pumps for prepay have become a huge target for card skimming, similar to ATMs,” he said.
According to the Law Reform, Road and Community Safety Committee’s Inquiry into Fuel Theft [US]: “Pre-pay fuel retailers reported a significant reduction in fuel theft, however in some cases neighbouring retailers who did not employ pre-payment saw an increase in drive-offs”.
Mr Rogut said implementation of the technologies used in the US would cost, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars, with some retailers already against it.
“Coles and Woolies have openly said they’re not going to do that, so if some of the smaller retailers do it, that just puts them at a competitive disadvantage because customers will go where it’s easy to shop.”
In addition to avoiding pre-paid methods at high-risk times, there are other options for retailers. Stores are equipped with CCTV, which is factored in at the design stage for new stores.
“Some retailers are also installing fog machines or fog bombs so the operator can release it if they are threatened in the store – it just blankets the store in the fog, the offenders get totally disoriented and generally run out,” Mr Rogut explained.
“There’s alarms, they’re looking at toughening up the glass at the front of stores.”
Keeping cash on site is also discouraged.
“Obviously they need some cash in the drawer to give change and whatever else, but if they’ve got more than $100 or $200 for change, they’re putting themselves at risk.”
Given their high cost and the ability to sell them on the street, cigarettes are often a target for criminals, and should be locked away. “That’s a big issue that has increased in the last couple of years as the prices in tobacco increased,” Mr Rogut said.
According to a BP spokesperson, the fuel retailer invests in a number of strategies to increase safety for staff and shoppers, in addition to CCTV, well-lit premises and holding limited cash.
“There are also panic buttons, safe refuges and where appropriate, night-pay windows and jump wires. A ‘locked door’ policy may be invoked anytime an employee deems it necessary,” the spokesperson said.
“We also conduct thorough training with all employees on how to best respond to these types of incidents so they are as well prepared as possible.”
Looking after staff
It is well documented that crimes against stores are traumatic for staff, particularly when those crimes are of a violent nature.
“We’ve had instances where staff have run out on the forecourt trying to chase them [drive-offs] and have been knocked over – staff are obviously concerned about it, so they will try and prevent these people driving off, but they are putting themselves at risk,” Mr Rogut said.
“And from a robbery point of view it is incredibly traumatic for some of these people. Some of them don’t go back to work, so there’s a cost to the community – everybody suffers as a result of that.
“People are absolutely critical in this, and that’s the number one concern of the industry, the effect on staff and customers.”
Service station owners need to work closely with their staff to ensure they have appropriate training to handle a drive-off or hold-up, and offer significant support if it does happen.
BP has a range of procedures in place to manage these situations.
“Various steps and requirements make up these procedures, however the priority is always employee and customer safety,” BP’s spokesperson said.
“To reduce drive-offs we trial various solutions and carefully evaluate these on a number of important criteria.
“Our team works closely with local police, not only to report these crimes but also engage in ongoing dialogue about ways the industry can best tackle these issues.”
What more can be done?
An integrated approach is important, with the Inquiry suggesting best practice is an ‘Integrated Partnership Response’ between retailers, regulators, police and the community that “pursues offenders via civil and criminal channels”.
The document suggests that service stations provide details of registration plates used in fuel theft incidents to an industry regulator, which would then obtain ownership details and send a notice of civil debt with an additional fine to be paid. If the plates are identified as stolen or clearly part of a criminal act, the matter is referred to police.
The British Oil Security Syndicate (BOSS) is used as a successful example, the report stating that retailers recouped 80 per cent (on average) of financial losses from drivers filling up claiming to be unable to pay and subsequently failing to return to settle.
While a government response report, published in October 2016, mostly supports the recommendations, it said primary responsibility for BOSS should sit with the fuel retail industry itself.
Mr Rogut expressed severe disappointed with the Victorian government’s response and said no changes had been implemented since the inquiry other than a few meetings.
Mr Rogut was bullish on handing down harsher penalties as the only way to improve the situation, given the statistics have only gotten worse year-on-year.
“We’re very disappointed in the outcome of the inquiry because a lot of the recommendations the industry put forward in terms of deterrents and penalties, were totally overlooked,” he said.
“We are concerned about our people in the store who are the targets, who really try and do the right thing … they can get hurt or injured, and are our first priority.
“Criminals will be criminals, I guess, but if they are at least forced to think twice – for example if you drive off without paying for petrol and you’re caught, it’s an immediate $5000 penalty and it’s two years in jail. It sounds harsh, but it’s got to be of that latitude that they have to think twice.
“At the moment it’s opportunistic, no one is going to chase them up for $30 or $40 worth of petrol – but as a country it’s $66 million.”