BOSS’s Forecourt Crime Index has just appeared in the news pages again, this time because it shows forecourt crime at its highest-ever level during Quarter 1 of this year.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to ask the most obvious questions. On this occasion it was a colleague who’s recently come into accounting:

Q: Petrol retailers allow customers to put almost any amount of product into their cars without paying for it first, or at least showing some intent to pay?

A: Well almost it’s possible to put an automatic limit on how much some pumps will dispense at any one time, and a cashier can stop the pump at any time if they become suspicious.

Q: Once the product is in the vehicle, it’s almost impossible to remove it?

A: Again correct; even without the anti-siphon mechanism on most modern vehicles, health and safety would not allow anyone to try and siphon out fuel. And that’s before you consider the sort of ’customer’ involved.

Q: Then some of these ’customers’ are able to drive straight off without paying, or some come into the shop claiming they’ve left their wallet at home and will be back tomorrow to settle up?

A: Err yes; the ones who come in will usually fill out a form a sort of IOU that can be followed up.

Q: And, as far as the police are concerned, technically this is a ’civil’ matter ie a commercial rather than a criminal offence?

A: Well, that’s a bit of a grey area.

He then started to point out potential solutions:

Q: Pre-pay at the kiosk before the cashier authorises the pump. Simple.

A: Can’t argue with the principle and many sites in what might be termed ’high risk’ areas do try and apply this rule, at least at ’high risk’ times such as overnight. However, there are several reasons to why this practice isn’t more common: Firstly customers apparently don’t like it although it’s hard to find any published research to actually confirm that. Secondly that it slows throughput on the site, which is why it only tends to be used at quiet times again hard to find any study that proves this assumption. However, perhaps the most valid reason is that it places the cashier in a vulnerable position; they are the ones who have to say ’yes’ or ’no’ to a customer, and that’s not always a pleasant prospect.

Q: Okay, remove the cashier from the process altogether: pre-pay at pump. This is 2017; technology requiring a valid payment card in the dispenser before drawing fuel has been around for at least 20 years. Many of the big supermarket sites have these pumps, quite a few oil company- owned sites have them, and they’re common all over Europe. Having said which, even the sites that have them over here don’t seem to use them very much.

A: Several points there: yes, the technology has been around for some years, although this being the UK anything that relies on consistently fast broadband connections for smooth operation tends to be limited to the larger urban areas. And, of course, there are many sites out there where the pumps and associated infrastructure are actually decades old, and where operators say it’s too expensive to replace them with the latest technology.

Q: This is 2017! The internet works. The industry just seems reluctant to use the technology it already has.

A: Ah, you’re not the first to notice that. There has long been reluctance within the petrol retailing industry to utilise any technology or other practice that would allow the customer to by-pass the trip through the shop before leaving.

Q: But those ’customers’ who don’t pay don’t contribute to the shop or any other sort of income! The point is that there are already solutions to the drive-off or NMoP problems. Of course, there may be a potential cost attached but it should be quantifiable. And then you compare those costs with the cost of crime at each site. It’s called a ’CostBenefit Analysis’ and I thought you accountants were always doing them?

A: No, you’re thinking of economists. But it’s not a bad idea. Wonder whether anyone has actually tried?