Over the past year there has been a steady stream of reports ranging from burglary and armed robbery through to overnight theft of entire tanks of diesel, ram raids and even, incredibly, criminals attempting to blow up cash tills a few metres from the fuel pumps. But while this type of crime hits local and even national headlines, and leaves retailers and their staff traumatised, it thankfully is relatively rare.

Meanwhile, the crimewave that costs UK forecourt owners millions of pounds every year rates barely a mention in the press, as criminals fill up, and either drive off without paying, or more and more frequently claim they have no means of payment and never return to pay their debts.

According to the latest Forecourt Crime Statistics Survey from BOSS, the British Oil Security Syndicate, theft of fuel from Britain’s forecourts cost retailers an estimated £31.4m during 2014. This is an increase of 28% compared with the last BOSS survey, for 2012.

In 2014 estimated drive-off losses were £21.7m (£20.4m in 2012), while the losses from customers claiming to have no means of payment (NMOP) having refuelled, more than doubled to £9.7m (£4.2m in 2012). The combined drive-off and NMOP loss for the average UK service station in 2014 was £3,600 (£2,800 in 2012).

Kevin Eastwood, executive director of BOSS, says the massive jump in the NMOP figure suggests criminals are taking advantage of the different ways that cash-strapped police forces treat the two scenarios. While a drive-off is clearly theft, and will be pursued, where someone signs and promises to come back it is classed as civil debt, and is not a priority for many police forces.

The sole focus of BOSS is prevention of drive-off and NMOP crime and it has two main strategies Forecourt Watch and Payment Watch. Forecourt Watch is aimed at drive-offs and involves police and their local forecourts sharing information. BOSS can help set up schemes and there are 126 across the UK varying from small local initiatives through to force-wide schemes but ultimately this depends on the police as they are the ones who will run it. Payment Watch provides BOSS members with procedures for dealing with NMOP, and recovering any money owed, and Eastwood says it has a more than 80% recovery rate.

BOSS is currently piloting an electronic reporting system for drive-offs with members in Hertfordshire before a planned roll out. Eastwood explains: "Instead of reporting a drive-off to the police they fill in an electronic report, attach a video clip or still image of the vehicle and the offender and send it to us." BOSS then works closely with a police department and if the vehicle is stolen, on false plates or is wanted for involvement in other crime, then the report is sent for investigation. However, if the vehicle has a registered keeper, and the failure to pay may not have been deliberate, a letter is sent to the registered keeper from the police department asking them to pay. More than 40% pay up on receipt of a letter.

Eastwood says: "From a police perspective that is really good news because it reduces the demand on them." It frees them to concentrate on the remainder, who are often involved in additional criminality to drive-offs. He adds that even before the pilot has finished, he has been contacted by five more police forces about getting involved.

In addition to the electronic system for reporting drive-offs, BOSS already offers members electronic reporting for Payment Watch and is about to launch an upgrade to services available to members on its website.

Eastwood says : "You will be able to check whether a vehicle has a registered keeper and a valid MOT, and check the description of the vehicle held by DVLA. If the description does not match what you’ve got on the forecourt you know you have a problem. You can also check the postcode and the address and whether the registration number is on a ’hot list’." All this will be available via the BOSS website on computers, tablet and smart phones.

European forecourt security specialist BigBrother also provides a system to help tackle drive-offs as part of a wider package for forecourt owners. Its AutoAlert module uses existing or new CCTV cameras and licence plate recognition software to flag up any vehicles which have outstanding money owed. WashTec UK is Big Brother’s UK partner, and BigBrother sales manager Richard Sweet says it is already in use on a number of Shell and BP dealer sites.

In the event of drive-offs it can provide a report with images of the vehicle in PDF or XML format, which can be passed on to the police, and the details can be stored and shared with other sites within a group.

BigBrother also provides security inside the forecourt shop with cameras covering the store and the till area and linked with the epos system. Sweet says: "Petrol stations get absolutely hammered by shoplifters stealing high-value items, and this system can identify this type of crime." He says that in one recent case evidence gathered by the system was used to get a family of criminals banned from coming within 100m of a forecourt they had targeted.

Most site staff are assets to the business, but there are occasional rogue elements, and this system can also help detect this type of crime. Sweet says one forecourt owner knew cigarettes were being stolen, but was unable to identify how. The system showed a friend of a cashier was coming in and paying for single packets of cigarettes but she was handing three packs over the counter.

Sweet says one of the strengths of the BigBrother system is that it is modular. "We recognise that each site is different. You can just have the recording device and use existing cameras or we can place cameras where needed or we can put a full system in."

The Tokheim Eye system uses software in a similar way to detect theft. Trevor Wallace, managing director of the equipment’s UK distributor Metro Security says that Tokheim Eye’s shrinkage analysis software exploits the system’s integration of high-definition CCTV cameras, epos and fuel POS payment/delivery equipment.

He says that Tokheim Eye monitors the pumps and when motorists pay for fuel and goods in the shop, it records details including the date and time, staff member involved interfacing all of these with the images.

This helps tackle theft by customers, staff, and collusion between the two.

He says: "The software’s analytics help cut down on theft of items and identifies trends in fraudulent transactions, fraudulent refunds, ’sweet hearting’ and staff shrinkage."

Fuel is the most valuable asset on most forecourts and Fairbanks’ wet-stock management systems have facilities designed to detect any suspicious activity. At one end of the spectrum are the bulk thieves who try to pump diesel from forecourt tanks, and here Fairbanks’ real-time monitoring system can instantly detect unusual ’drops’ in fuel levels and raise an alert. The retailer can then call the police immediately and this has resulted in several cases where thieves have been apprehended on site.

Fairbanks sees fuel theft attempts most months with some retailers losing many thousands of litres at a time. The firm’s communications manager, Gareth Jenkins says: "We often find that many retailers invest thousands of pounds on preventative measures, such as cages and CCTV. Our system costs a fraction of this equipment and focuses on detecting the theft as it happens. The peace of mind we offer our customers helps them to get a good night’s sleep without worrying about their valuable underground stock."

Above ground a small number of staff attempt to adjust wet-stock records to hide unauthorised transactions. However, Fairbanks real-time system captures every fluctuation in stock levels and knows precisely when a nozzle has been used, so there is no way that staff could trick the system and remove fuel without Fairbanks finding out and alerting the owner.

Oil companies are also taking steps to help dealers improve their security and reduce the risk of forecourt thefts, with Jet making it an integral part of its ’Proud to be Jet’ store standards programme. The scheme involve audits of site standards with dealers awarded one, two or three ’Diamonds’ which can be exchanged for a range of services aimed at enhancing site standards.

Stuart Cufflin, transport and retail contracts manager at Jet, explains: "We recognised that to install security facilities such as CCTV and intruder alarms can be costly for independent dealers so as part of our Proud to be Jet rewards we have developed security packages that can be adapted to each of our dealers’ sites and requirements.

"All dealers that qualify for the Diamond rewards will receive a site security risk assessment conducted by Steve Nelson, a security practitioner at Veritas Asset Protection Solutions. He will visit the site and provide the owner with a comprehensive report and recommendations. Each dealer will then receive a follow-up call one and three months after the visit to review actions. The greater the number of Diamonds the dealer has attained, the more value-added security related services they can choose from once the risk assessment has been completed."

Steve Nelson comments: "My role is to look at each forecourt through the eyes of a criminal and to identify any opportunities and weaknesses that exist at the site. This doesn’t just relate to the physical security measures, but also the behavioural disciplines that put a site at risk, such as leaving a back door open or how an operator opens and locks up when alone. The aim is to educate dealers on the benefits of enhanced security measures."

Scott Aitken, owner of Jet’s Rigg Service Station in Dunbar, East Lothian, comments: "We’ve owned the site for 15 years and have been fortunate to have never had any crime incidents. However, when Jet offered us the chance to exchange our Proud to be Jet Diamonds for the security package, we felt it would be a good opportunity to get a fresh perspective on the site’s security. Steve’s risk assessment was very valuable as he opened my eyes to some areas that we had overlooked. He gave us good advice on how to improve our processes for cash handling and lone workers. Following the assessment, we took up Jet’s offer of new CCTV cameras and are in the process of getting them fitted."

Security is clearly a concern for the forecourt sector but investment in both technology and expertise will always prove cost effective if it deters or detects crime.

retailer view

"As fuel retailers, the security of our customers, staff and property is of paramount importance. The principles of health and safety play a major part in ensuring security on forecourts.
"With ever-increasing numbers of vehicles on the roads and footfall on the forecourts comes the potential for incidents that can occur at any time, particularly for a business that offers 24-hour service.
"CCTV is the most vital security measure in our business. Forecourt and in-store surveillance helps prevent and reduce bilking and provides sufficient evidence to determine if a would-be culprit’s intentions were innocent or premeditated. Additionally, comprehensive staff training is in place at all of our sites as a further precaution, giving all parties further peace of mind and establishing directives on the appropriate course of action to take in any given situation.
"Like many 24-hour forecourts, we have one employee on site overnight; their safety is never compromised and shop doors are locked after 10pm. In addition to a well-lit forecourt, there is a fully working CCTV system, panic alarm equipment and fully functional serving hatch. Even so, our staff have to be ever mindful. On one occasion, at around 2.30am, a member of staff witnessed what turned out to be a simulated fight, orchestrated to encourage them out of the shop.
"While in normal circumstances someone’s immediate instinct may be to leave their post to help or diffuse the situation, that employee’s training ensured correct protocols were followed and the charade was unsuccessful."