MAHONING VALLEY As fuel prices go up, so does number of gas-and-dashers

Gas stations have no choice but to confront the theft.
BOARDMAN -- Stephanie Sebest had little trouble eyeing the four timeworn gas pumps clumped on a dilapidated concrete island outside her workplace.
The Dairy Mart pumps might be relics, with number rolls that spin higher as the price climbs. Still, she knew from her six months there that the pumps weren't immune to modern trickery.
Sebest, the Market Street store's assistant manager, thought the man, who she pegged in his mid- to late 40s, was taking an awfully long time to collect his $5 of prepaid gasoline.
Then she realized what was happening.
"Hey," she yelled, after sprinting next to the man's cracked passenger window, "you paid for $5 and pumped $35."
Sebest chalked up the situation -- after which the man begrudgingly paid -- as an on-the-job hazard in an age of rising gasoline prices and flaring consumer tempers.
"I think he was a little upset I ran out to his car," she said, her eyebrows raised and shoulders shrugging. "Oh well."
Fill and split: Area convenience stores such as Dairy Mart have had little choice but to confront gasoline theft, said local retailers and police. Whatever you call it -- gas-n-go, gas-and-dash or fill-n-split -- it provides recurring worries about how to prevent it, they say.
Stations in Boardman and Austintown, which contain the major arteries of suburban traffic, routinely call police for drive-offs, reports indicated. Austintown had 15 such reports in April -- its highest number in the past six months -- while Boardman police received nine. Typically, the thieves swiped $10 to $15 in gas, though some thefts totaled as little as $3. Few thieves are caught, police said.
Austintown Lt. Mark Durkin said as the number of gas thefts rises, police realize these thieves don't fit into neat profiles of age, race or gender.
Often, gas theft is more a crime of perception, said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Convenience Stores.
Wrong enemy: "People feel it's some unnamed oil sheik or conglomerate taking their money," he said. "They're frustrated and take it out on the retailers."
Lenard said combating this perception is difficult without resorting to a message stations are loathe to give: Prepay or don't think about pumping.
Prepaying is often the last resort, he said. With gas in Ohio averaging $1.77 a gallon, according to AAA Ohio Motorists Association, consumers are pinching pennies.
Some owners said prepaying gives the customer one more reason not to buy the indoor goodies that ensure profits. Only about 8 percent of the 120,000 NACS member stores enforced prepaying in 1998, the last year data was compiled, Lenard said.
Instead, stations are utilizing alternative remedies such as cameras, which Shawn Scott said has kept the Market Street Sunoco he manages virtually free of drive-offs.
For the two years Scott has worked there, a monitor inside the station has showcased a Big Brother-like view of the station's five pumps -- a measure he said makes prepaying unnecessary. Besides, he said, "It's an insult to some people."
Nagamul Usmani, supervisor at the Marathon on Boardman-Canfield Road, was willing to take that risk. Discouraged by frequent drive-offs by younger customers, he employed a modified version of prepaying last week: These customers, usually age 18 to 22, must prepay.
Some angry: "Young kids get upset about it, but we had drive-offs. That's why we're doing it." Older customers -- the store's regulars -- understand, he said.
Other stations exercise more universal methods: prepaying after certain times or at certain pumps. That way, said Mike Ashely, manager at the Meridian Road McQuaid's, Austintown, "they can usually pull to another pump if they don't want to prepay."
Some owners are waiting, however, crossing their fingers for Ohio to implement a proposed law that would suspend the license of a person caught stealing gas. Twelve states, including Michigan and West Virginia, have similar statutes.
Dairy Mart's Sebest is just biding her time until the store's intercom is fixed. Then, if needed, she can yell from behind the counter instead of leaving her customers stranded.
"If you have a rush and there are five people in line, they can look in, see you're busy and drive off," she said.
And Sebest's not about to let that happen.

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