At a time when fuel theft is not always taken that seriously by the police, it was interesting to read a report in last month’s Sunderland Echo which said police deployed a helicopter in their hunt for fuel thieves. Northumbria Police said a fuel theft was reported by a forecourt in South Hetton Road near Hetton. They subsequently chased a black Ranger Rover, which they believed was connected to the incident and were aided by the force’s helicopter. The car was found crashed into a wall and the two men inside had legged it.
This is most certainly an unusual case, as many police forces will only do something in relation to drive-offs and no means of payment (NMoP) if there are other factors. Kent Police, for instance, on its website says that when someone drives off without paying it will record the crime but will not investigate because the registered keeper’s details can be provided to a civil debt recovery agent. Likewise with NMoP, where Kent Police says retailers should collect the customer’s name address and car reg, give them time to pay then pursue civil recovery. It advises retailers to adopt industry standard procedures such as those by BOSS (British Oil Security Syndicate). As for those ’other factors’, Kent Police highlights masking or altering number plates as a crime where they say they should be notified immediately as they would investigate this.
Luckily retailers large and small have BOSS’s Payment Watch scheme to rely upon.
Colin Levy, head of retail operations at Certas Energy, says they have been using Payment Watch on all their sites across Scotland over the past three years: "It’s a customer friendly system which is easy for our staff to implement and also simple for customers to then either return to pay or pay through the BOSS Payment Centre. We’ve also found that incidents of NMoP have fallen because Payment Watch deters those people who try to take advantage of our good nature. This group of offenders now know that if you don’t return to pay then they’ll be pursued for the debt.
"BOSS Payment Watch has been really effective for us. We now have an overall 97% recovery rate for NMoP, which has saved us tens of thousands of pounds. The BOSS service is definitely the best and simplest scheme around."
Smaller operators are benefiting too. Linda Millar, for example, has been using BOSS’s services for years. She currently runs MRH’s Warwick Road Service Station in Kenilworth.
"I used the system when I worked for Shell and I had to pay for membership myself. Now MRH pays my membership, which is good but if I had to pay it out of my own pocket I would."
Linda says that’s because any losses come out of her own pocket but she has recouped a lot of the money lost from NMoPs.
"Payment Watch is a great thing because it’s all online and so easy to use. Our NMoP instances have definitely gone down since we started using their official forms. We used our own forms before but these are much more official; they’re a legal document and people can see we mean business."
Linda says the forecourt is in quite an affluent area so drive-offs aren’t a huge problem and, of course, some NMoP instances are genuine. "If it’s genuine, people come back and pay, otherwise if they haven’t paid within seven days, we send off our report."
The importance of BOSS in tackling forecourt crime is immense. It all started more than 25 years ago and today the organisation represents nearly one third of all UK forecourts.
Kevin Eastwood, executive director at BOSS, says drive-offs and NMoPs incidents cost retailers over £30m a year but his organisation’s robust guidelines and procedures help retailers with this massive problem.
"Our Payment Watch and Forecourt Watch services are the only GDPR compliant service available to Britain’s forecourt retailers. They have been designed to be sensitive to retail customers who genuinely make mistakes but are firm enough to deal with persistent offenders," he explains.
Eastwood says rising fuel prices never help and have recently had an impact on incidents of forecourt crime: "The most recent BOSS Forecourt Crime Index has risen to 132 during the first quarter of 2018 (versus a figure of 117 in Q1 2017).
"BOSS is now recovering and returning more than £1m every year to retailers. In addition, our recent research has found that our services are having an even bigger impact.
"Retailers operating the BOSS Payment Watch service are finding it acts as a deterrent against potential offenders and they are recovering £8.2m from customers who return to settle debts."
Eastwood acknowledges that drive-offs are difficult to deal with, as retailers either may not have the information that the police must have in order to follow up, or some police won’t take any action. "We’ve been working hard to tackle drive-offs, it’s still the largest issue and costs retailers about £20m each year."
He says drive-offs fall into two categories. One-third are where drivers are filling up, making absolutely no attempt to pay and then driving off this, he says, is theft. But two thirds of incidents are failure to pay in-store. "There may be many reasons for this, a mistake or deliberate. It could be that there were two people who came in in the same vehicle and each thought the other one had paid. It may not have been intentional at all.
"Some police forces treat these incidents differently. Some see them as a civil offence while others treat them as a crime."
Eastwood says the new BOSS Forecourt Watch drive-off service has shown that it can recover up to 70% of drive-off losses if they have adequate information to pursue suspects.
"What’s exciting about this drive-off initiative is that it’s the industry taking control of reporting and recovering losses. In Essex, where the scheme started, only 5% of incidents have had to be reported to the police, which saves them a huge amount of time. We’re planning to roll out the initiative to more forces by the end of the year.
"We find that police forces often like working with BOSS because the evidence that is collected against drive-off and NMoP offenders by BOSS has been used by the authorities to help them tackle other crime types. "Having accurate information about incidents quickly, gives us the opportunity to prepare evidence that helps prosecutors. It also gives our members information to improve the way they manage their businesses.
"The BOSS Electronic Reporting System is now a critical tool for us and it’s available across the UK and both NMoP and drive-off reporting is fully integrated in it. We provide regular reports that allow us to see how our members are performing against their peers. For example, why can one retailer recover 70% of their debts while others may only be achieving a 20% recovery rate? By working with our members, we can analyse why recovery rates differ and then help them to improve prevention and recover more money."
Eastwood says a common reason for not being able to recover money owed is simply that the retailer doesn’t submit the claims on time.
"There is a time limit involved. Retailers need to give people seven days to pay up either in person or over the phone and then, if they haven’t, submit their claim the next day after those seven days have passed. They need to see the day of the incident as day zero, give the person seven days after that to pay up, then submit their claim on the next day after that."
He says paper-based reporting has its problems too because of insufficient detail or simply very poor handwriting. "You look at a registration number that someone has written down and you wonder if it’s an ’M’ or a ’W’ that you are looking at, or a ’U’ or a ’V’. That’s why we prefer electronic reporting and we don’t charge extra for it."
As for cost, BOSS charges £180 for the first year, which includes a starter pack then £150 from the second year onwards. That’s the cost per site, but when you look at the scale of fuel theft, it seems well worth the money.
"BOSS is much more than a debt recovery service, we are truly the specialist in our sector and we have built up a huge bank of knowledge that we share with our members and help to make forecourts safer places to work and shop in," says Eastwood.
"The campaign to reduce forecourt crime will continue and during the upcoming year BOSS will be working with retailers, the police and government agencies to deliver safer forecourts."
Youths on the street is the number one anti-social behaviour experienced in wholesale and retail businesses, according to OnBuy, which analysed a new report published by the Home Office, entitled Crime Against Businesses: Findings from the 2017 Commercial Victimisation Survey.
It found that 14% of wholesale and retail businesses had experienced anti-social behaviour (ASB) in the past 12 months. The victims of ASB were asked how, if at all, the experience impacted on the business at their premises. While 38% said it had had little to no impact, 62% admitted it had had a negative impact. For example, 34% of victims felt it had a financial impact on business; 32% of respondents believed it had a negative impact on custom; and a further 29% said it had a negative impact on employees.
OnBuy discovered that other forms of anti-social behaviour suffered by retailers and wholesalers included people feeling intimidated, being threatened or verbally abused and drinking on the streets.
ACS is calling on all Police and Crime Commissioners to pledge to ensure that police forces take shop theft and abuse of staff seriously, and that they respond to incidents where they’re reported.
Figures from the 2018 ACS Crime Report show that theft costs each c-store in the UK an average of more than £1,700 a year, with retailers fearing that incidents are the main trigger for abuse of staff in stores. There were almost a million incidents of shop theft estimated in the convenience sector last year. A template letter for retailers to send to their PCC is available at https://www.acs.org.uk/lobbying
Helping to prevent drive-offs and NMoP
The ACS has issued advice to help retailers prevent drive-offs. In its Preventing Fuel Theft document, it states that fuel thieves have three priorities when committing an offence which can often give them away: concealing their identity; concealing the identity of their vehicle; and making a quick getaway.
Concealing identity: Look out for customers covering their face; concealing themselves behind their vehicle; and using the pump furthest away or nearest the exit when others are available.
Vehicle identity: Look out for vehicles where the number plate has been removed or covered up; vehicles that are in a poor state of repair and look suspicious.
Quick getaway: Look out for whether any of the car doors are open while the vehicle is being filled; whether it’s the passenger filling the vehicle while the driver remains in the car; whether the lights are on and the engine is still running. The ACS says forecourt attendants should, when necessary, not authorise the pump or use the tannoy to deter offenders.
As for no means of payment, ACS recommends:
Always mention fuel: Ask all customers at the till "Do you have any fuel?". This prevents them from claiming they forgot to pay or weren’t asked.
Get customers on CCTV: When a customer who has no means of payment is giving their contact details to the retail assistant, get their image on CCTV. This could help police enquires at a later date if they fail to return and pay, or are a multiple offender.
Think about timing: evidence suggests that no means of payment incidents are more likely to happen at the end of the month, close to payday. In addition for both drive-offs and no means of payment attempts, offenders are more likely to try at night or during busy periods.
Keeping an eye on things
Nick Fisher, CEO of Forecourt Eye and Facewatch, says that since the launch of Forecourt Eye in 2016, fuel theft in one form or another has increased by 11.5%, meaning the average site will report losses of £4,000 per annum.
Forecourt Eye’s primary objective is to prevent and deter crime through a combination of the use of digital software, automated messaging and highly visible legal signage, and Fishers says evidence suggests it’s having a positive effect.
On average Forecourt Eye claims a 25% reduction in negative activity across its protected sites in the first year with many operators reporting the best recovery rates they’ve ever had.
Farook Valli, joint owner of 15 Valli Forecourts throughout the UK, says "I’ve been working with Forecourt Eye for two years now. I have seen the recovery rates consistently improve and, more impressively, a significant reduction in crime, both on the forecourts and in my stores. The message is definitely out there around my sites that Forecourt Eye is actively pursuing drive-offs and no means of payments, which is deterring petty crime and reducing my year-on-year losses."
Fisher adds: "Farook runs a tight ship and continues to encourage and challenge us on improving our performance. The good news is we’ve just finished running three months of testing new debt recovery algorithms and we’ve seen a substantial increase in our drive-off recovery rates that has got us all very excited.
"Our existing customers will benefit from this new service starting this month."