Motorists should pay in advance for fuel, said a police chief this week.
Bilking, or the act of filling up and driving off without paying for it, is a serious crime in the petrol industry but figures revealed recently show that it annually costs the industry millions.
The Petrol Retail Association (PRA), which represents 70% of forecourts, estimated that on average every year £30 million worth of fuel is lost due to bilking.
In order to stop this, and help free up police resources, the police chief has called for forecourts to “design out” bilking, something he believes is a feasible and immediate action.
Lowered police resources
Due to lower police resources, Lincolnshire Police was the first to announce they would not be responding directly to reports of bilking, but instead, they would act from the desk, or not at all unless a staff member was in direct danger. They would also attend the scene for aggravating factors such as larger theft or threats towards staff.
The force will continue to record all instances, but it found itself becoming a ‘civil debt collector’ and has now asked all forecourt owners to use local civil courts to gain the funds back from the theft of fuel.
The lowered police resources nationwide have meant the nearly one in five cases of bilking are not investigated or pursued by police. One such instance occurred in Grantham, where a forecourt owner, Ian Cruickshank, had his CCTV catch a thief stealing fuel, but Lincolnshire Police “didn’t follow it up.”
Forecourts nationwide have experienced an increase of up to 40% in some areas of bilking, taking the total up to over 25,000 reported cases nationwide, and the actual number will be much higher, considering the estimated £30 million a year loss estimated by the PRA.
Police chief solution
One solution proposed was to “design out” bilking by introducing forced pay at the pump or pay before fuel, something he says happens in most other countries. In the USA, for example, the pump is locked until you either insert a credit/debit card or until you have pre-paid at the till for a certain cash amount of fuel. The pump is then locked when you hit the pre-specified amount.
Simon Cole of the National Police Chiefs’ Council said that “The petroleum industry could design out bilking in 30 seconds by making people pay up front which is what they do in other countries. They don’t because the walk up in their shops is part of their business offer.”
However, this was dismissed by the commercial manager of the PRA as “not quite as simple” as it sounds. Gordon Balmer went on to say that retrofitting pumps across the UK with pay at pumps card machines could cost at the very minimum £20,000 for an average petrol station, some others quoted much higher. For most petrol stations, where profit margins are slim, a extra £20,000 cost is something most cannot afford unless they can prove a return on investment, something that is not likely.
Mr Balmer also added that up to 50% of petrol stations profits come from the convenience store itself. Profit margins are so low on fuel that for a station to survive, it needs to have an alternative source of income to be able to pay staff decent wages and create profits. It may come as a surprise to some that up to 70% of the UK forecourts are actually owned by individuals who then choose to license stores to different fuels. For example, one store could be owned by an individual but choose to sell Shell for five years, and then go on to sell Applegreen later on. Those stations owned by larger companies may be able to foot the bill for retrofitting pumps with “Pay at pump” machines but it is unlikely that independents could.