Motorists not paying for fuel - whether by accident or design - has long been the scourge of the fuel retailing sector, and according to the latest figures, the overall trend is upwards.
There are no easy answers, although there have been many attempts to come up with some - who remembers the spikes installed at the forecourt exit, ready to be deployed and rip up the offender’s tyres in the event of a ‘drive-off’?
However, there has been one trusty organisation at the heart of reducing forecourt crime since its formation in 1991, and that is BOSS - the British Oil Security Syndicate.
It has been on a long journey since it was first established by the major oil companies to raise awareness and share examples of best practice about fuel theft and forecourt crime.
Kevin Eastwood, the former executive director of BOSS until his retirement in April 2022, was not only instrumental in its formation, but played a key role in its evolution into a modern and successful not-for-profit organisation that is totally focused on tackling drive-offs and no means of payment (NMoP).
Happily, Kevin’s work has continued through his daughter Claire Nichol, who has succeeded him as executive director. She joined BOSS in 2006 as head of membership services, developing the administrative and support services offered to members.
More recently she has overseen the transformation of BOSS with the introduction and implementation of the GDPR compliant Electronic Reporting System for Payment Watch, as well as re-engineering operating procedures and improving the effectiveness of recovering unpaid fuel debts. Her husband Bruce Nichol is operations director.
“Oil companies used to get together and raise their concerns between them and would try and resolve them across the board because it affected everybody,” explains Claire. “It was about all sorts of stats to do with robberies, burglaries, drive-offs, customer issues, aggressive behaviour, staff issues - lots of general things.
“It was recognised that all the oil companies were doing the same things but in different ways, and it was about trying to bring best practice together around health & safety and security on forecourts. They all had the same issues, but they approached them in different ways, and some were working better than others.”
“It was also a campaigning body that wanted to improve safety and security on forecourts and used some initiatives to bring the sector together and try and create better relationships with the police across various forces, and so the concept of Forecourt Watch evolved.”
The Forecourt Watch scheme, launched in 1997, involved about 40 police forces and was essentially an information-sharing system where retailers would ring other retailers and pass on information about suspicious vehicles. There would be a ‘hot list’ of vehicles that would be faxed and do the rounds of the sites.
But over time things began to change. In the early part of the century, there was a strategic shift in the market by the oil companies to pull away from owning sites, as well as the growing presence of the supermarkets.
Where BOSS had worked closely with the police – and still maintains strong links because of its ‘not-for-profit’ status - pressure on police resources meant responses to reported drive-offs reduced. The police felt retailers should do more to help themselves.
At the time the police were making it harder for the retailer to claim that ‘not paying for fuel’ was a crime. The police would not investigate as they wouldn’t recognise it as a crime, because there was a possibility the incident could be a mistake. Fuel margins were thin, and retailers were getting mightily cheesed off – they couldn’t afford for motorists to take fuel without paying for it.
In response BOSS took a campaigning stance on behalf of the retailers, and while the organisation didn’t fall out with the police, it certainly went head-to-head with them on a few occasions; and more so because the problem was becoming more prevalent.
BOSS worked very hard to change the perception of the unpaid fuel incident, which eventually resulted in the Home Office changing its guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service and the police in 2013, to clearly state that theft of fuel is a crime and must be recorded as such.
Another growing problem over the years has been the increase of ‘no means of payment’. In 2010 BOSS launched Payment Watch, a service for retailers, which quickly became established as one of the solutions retailers could use to help recover money they were owed.
It was a paper-based system, whereby retailers would complete an incident report, and send the details to BOSS, who developed a process of following up with the vehicle owners.
“The real step-change in that process has been the introduction of an integrated database - an electronic reporting system, that collects all the information, and helps to manage the process,” explains Claire.
“It means that BOSS now has a very effective system that works for those people that are part of it,” she stresses.
Recovery rates are high. On sites operating the Payment Watch scheme, BOSS says 80% of motorists claiming NMoP return within seven days to pay for fuel taken. For drive-off incidents, the recovery rate - where the vehicle information is valid - rises to 93%.
They’re encouraging statistics in a world where retailers have felt somewhat abandoned by the police and have been forced to seek solutions themselves.
BOSS estimates that there are about 1.5 million incidents a year, with average annual losses per forecourt outlet estimated at £11,530. This means incidents of unpaid fuel are costing UK forecourt operators around £100m per annum.
Payment Watch has received huge impetus since the pandemic. Where Kevin had invested a considerable amount of time setting up the electronic reporting systems, Claire and Bruce have taken it forward to become increasingly digitised, although the paper system still operates and is run in parallel as lots of retailers still like the paper process. Around 2,500 sites use Payment Watch currently.
In order to deal with the volume of work efficiently, BOSS has developed a strong relationship over a number of years, with a long-established law firm - Wright Hassall - which has an impressive proficient debt collection subsidiary. The logistics of collecting payments and the issuing of letters is done through the partnership with Wright Hassall.
“Payment Watch is very legal in the way it’s set out. It’s very robust but it’s customer friendly,” says Bruce. “If you don’t pay your debt, civil recovery will take place; if you don’t do civil recovery, criminally, you could be held accountable for fraud, because you’ve actually taken the fuel without payment and knowingly and fraudulently said you would be coming back within seven days.
“There has been considerable investment - time, money and working with retailers - to create what is a very powerful tool, that gives retailers an option to recover money.
“We know our system works really well. There’s no smoke and mirrors with it. What you see is what you get. Our database is huge - and probably the best data in the sector. Within a few days we could tell you exactly how much fuel has been stolen within the past 12 months and it’d be very accurate.”
Further developments mean BOSS can also offer managerial reports, which enable companies - particularly those with a big network - to see which sites are performing and which aren’t. It can help retailers improve their performance and tackle issues where additional training for staff or guidance may be needed.
“It throws up information that can help people to improve,” explains Claire. “If there’s an uplift in reported drive-offs, you can show those drive-offs as a failure to pay in store. It can highlight that these may be happening on a Monday morning or Friday evening - busy times, so maybe the site should be putting more staff on then?
“The exciting thing for BOSS is that our systems has been built on a really solid foundation. Payment Watch was initially a paper-driven system, now developed into a digitised system, and is now moving in a more focused role to support retailers, and the early demonstration of that is the EPOS link (launched last year), that gives retailers another option.”
• Established in 1991, BOSS, the British Oil Security Syndicate, was formed by the major oil companies to raise awareness and share examples of best practices about fuel theft and forecourt crime.
• BOSS developed Forecourt Watch in 1997 and it became one of the most effective forecourt crime prevention initiatives in the UK fuel retail sector. Since being introduced Forecourt Watch schemes have been protecting and safeguarding the well-being of customers and staff, helping to reduce crime and the fear of crime.
• At its peak Forecourt Watch schemes operated across more than 70 areas of the United Kingdom. Forecourt Watch led to a substantial reduction in incidents, often seeing forecourt crime fall by more than 50% and in certain instances by up to 70% in some areas.
• In 2009 detailed research by BOSS established that forecourt crime was costing forecourt retailers £30 million each year. Two-thirds of forecourt crime was the result of Drive-Off incidents and one-third were the result of No Means of Payment incidents.
• In 2010 BOSS introduced the BOSS Payment Watch service to address the growing level of No Means of Payment (NMoP) incidents. The scheme has proved to be the most successful loss recovery scheme in the UK fuel retail sector. In addition to helping retailers recover more than £15 million per annum, the scheme acts as a deterrent against potential offenders.
• BOSS worked closely with both law enforcement and other government agencies to improve understanding of the impact of fuel theft and encourage the authorities to treat it in a consistent manner. As a direct result in 2013, the Home Office changed its guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, to clearly state that theft of fuel is a crime and must be recorded as such.
• More recently, after an extensive trial, in 2019 BOSS Payment Watch was extended to incorporate a wider service that deals with drive-offs. It has proved to be an effective tool in helping retailers to reduce losses.
• On sites operating BOSS Payment Watch, 80% of motorists claiming NMoP return within seven days to pay for fuel taken. For drive-off incidents, the recovery rate, where the vehicle information is valid, rises to 93%.