New guidance has been published by the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) to support retailers in preventing fuel theft and advising them on how to respond when it does occur.
It has been developed as part of the Home Office’s Crime Prevention Panel, and could be seen as a major shift in policy by the Home Office towards the sector since remarks made by a previous crime prevention minister who has since been replaced.
In August Norman Baker, who was then crime prevention minister, stirred up a storm of criticism when he claimed that many filling stations were not doing enough to prevent drive-offs.
He suggested that if filling stations did not introduce pre-payment pumps then police should not be expected to respond to drive-off thefts. During the summer there were also reports that a number of individual police forces began putting pressure on forecourts where drive-off crime was a problem, urging them to install pre-payment pumps.
However, the minister’s comments were slammed by retailers, the PRA and BOSS (British Oil Security Syndicate) and drivers’ representatives. PRA chairman Brian Madderson said: "Trying to force retailers to adopt pre-payment is an arrogant, misguided viewpoint that would cause a grievous loss of trade.
"We only live as forecourt retailers these days by dint of our shop sales. The margin on fuel has almost disappeared and the reason is the supermarkets selling at or below cost."
Kevin Eastwood, executive director at BOSS (British Oil Security Syndicate), pointed out the enormous investment by the industry in combating theft and working with local police forces. And AA president Edmund King said: "Drivers want a choice as to whether they pay at the pump or in the garage shop. It seems grossly unfair to suggest that all drivers should pay at the pump due to the criminal activity of a minority of crooks in cars. Rather than passing the buck we need better technology to defer fraud and more cops in cars to catch these fraudsters."
Baker’s intervention came shortly before a meeting of the Home Office’s Crime Prevention Panel, which included representatives from ACS, PRA and BOSS, but he did not attend. The Crime Prevention Panel was set up to bring together representatives from academia, business and industry, policing and law enforcement and the voluntary sector to bring new thinking and fresh perspectives to issues around crime prevention.
The meeting was called specifically in order to look at ways to tackle forecourt crime and ACS was asked to draw up the guidance for retailers. ACS worked with a group of petrol retailer members and also consulted with other groups and associations to review the advice that was already available and draw it together into a single document. The guidance is intended for retailers, particularly independents, and to help them highlight the issues to their staff.
The main part of the guidance is advice on how to prevent drive-offs and ’no means of payment’ fraud. Critics of Norman Baker will be pleased to know that nowhere in the document is there any mention of pre-payment pumps. The advice on drive-offs highlights three priorities which forecourt attendants should look out for: customers trying to conceal their identity, or the identity of their vehicle; and customers looking to make a quick getaway. It advises them to look out for customers hiding their face with a hood, scarf or helmet or who conceal themselves behind their vehicle or the pump. It suggests that if customers park at the pump furthest from the store or nearest the exit when other pumps are available, then the attendant should use their tannoy to ask them to move to a different pump.
Other factors it warns to look out for are where the passenger fills up the car while the driver remains inside, whether any of the car doors are left open while it is being filled, and whether the lights are left on or the engine is still running. In the event of a drive-off attendants are advised never to give chase and to record all the evidence they can.
When it comes to ’no means of payment’ occurrences, it highlights BOSS’s Payment Watch scheme as a way of managing them and again provides tips for forecourt attendants. It reminds them they should ask all customers at the till "Did you have any fuel?", and that if customers need to give their contact details, they should also get their image on CCTV. Other tips relate to the time when offences are more likely to occur. It says the number of ’no means of payment’ incidents increases at the end of the month close to pay day, and that both drive-off and ’no means of payment’ attempts are more likely at night or during busy periods.
The guidance also contains advice on reporting fuel theft. It says that if a drive-off or fraud has occurred then the appropriate number to dial is 101, not 999, as immediate police attendance is not required. It adds that 999 should only be used where a crime or serious incident is in progress.
As the guidance was launched, ACS chief executive James Lowman said: "Fuel retailers make every effort to prevent fuel theft from their sites by investing in CCTV, ANPR and staff training. We hope the guidance will support retailers to prevent fuel theft and help them build closer relationships with the police to catch offenders and deter others from trying."
Norman Baker quit his job at the Home Office at the beginning of November, and his successor as crime prevention minister is Lynne Featherstone. She said: "Crime is down by more than 20% under the coalition government according to the independent Crime Survey for England and Wales. However, we are not complacent. That is why the Home Office created a Crime Prevention Panel of industry leaders, police, charities and academics who are spearheading our understanding of today’s emerging crime trends.
"Today’s guidance has an important part to play in cracking down on fuel theft, protecting retailers’ revenues and supporting police work to catch the perpetrators."
The guide, Preventing Fuel Theft, can be downloaded from the advice section of ACS website www.acs.org.uk
ACS FUEL RETAILER SURVEY
ACS completed a survey of fuel retailers in July 2014 for the Home Office Working Group.
They collected figures from 533 forecourt sites in the UK relating to their experience of theft over the previous 12 months.
The results showed that fuel theft is a persistent problem with each store experiencing an average of one or two incidents each week.
Scaling up the figures for all the fuel sites in the UK, it estimated that there are 546,000 drive-offs each year and that the total annual cost to the sector is £20m.
The survey also looked at ’no means of payment’ incidents and found there were 425,000 a year with a total cost of the sector £11m a year.
This means that fuel theft alone is costing the forecourt sector a total of £31m a year.