Latest figures released by the British Oil Security Syndicate (BOSS), show that in 2004 forecourts lost £16.3m through drive-offs and a further £5.1m thanks to drivers who claimed they had ‘no means of payment’ for their fuel. Add in robbery, burglary and other thefts and the total losses rise to at least £26m. However, progress is being made. New solutions are constantly being developed and the industry continues to fight back to ensure the crooks don’t win.
BOSS has been at the forefront of the battle for 15 years and its Forecourt Watch partnerships with police forces around the country have led to substantial reductions in crime on sites where schemes operate. Focusing heavily on drive-offs, participating retailers in some areas have seen the number of incidents cut by as much as 70%. The Coventry scheme has produced the best results to date, with forecourt crime reduced by 87.5% last November. BOSS also successfully lobbied the Home Office last year over new guidelines which appeared to reduce the crime status of drive-offs.
Kevin Eastwood, executive director of BOSS, says: “What we’ve found is that the prolific offender for drive-offs is actually the visible tip of a far larger crime iceberg. They will also be your burglar, your robber, your drug dealer or stolen goods merchant. So by taking an interest in our problems, the police can solve a lot of the other issues that they’re really worried about.”
BOSS is steered and funded by the five major oil companies – BP, Esso, Shell, Total and Texaco – and represents any site selling their brands, as well as members of the Petrol Retailers Association. Forecourt Watch initiatives now operate in more than 70 areas, with the aim being to have them in every major city in the UK. The latest was launched in Hillingdon, west London in January, and by the end of this year schemes will be running in 16 of the 32 London boroughs. Meanwhile, Greater Manchester Police recently became the first to introduce a force-wide scheme, covering 300 service stations.
Central to the success of Forecourt Watch are the self-reporting packs for drive-offs, as Kevin Eastwood explains: “The packs are kept on site and are completed as soon as an incident occurs. All the information related to the offence is then sent to the police or collected.
“By doing it there and then – reporting it on a form which has been laid out specially – everything is there. The cashier signs it, the manager of the business checks it and then submits it to the police. It saves a lot of time from the very beginning.”
The system provides a set procedure for dealing with drive-offs and is one which Eastwood wants to see adopted by every force in the country. “Successful schemes have reduced crime and saved thousands of pounds in police time,” he says. “The retailers are happier and the police have gained more intelligence. It makes an appealing package.”
Another way in which BOSS is raising the stakes is through the development of a civil debt recovery system for both drive-offs and no means of payment incidents. This would see offenders pursued – whether prosecuted by the police or not – to pay back what they owe. It would also create a database which could be used as evidence should the owner of a registered vehicle repeatedly fail to pay.
Unfortunately the crooks are not always just visitors to the forecourt – they can be working on the inside too. Retailers should never neglect to check references and other information provided by staff. BOSS has a vetting system which allows its members to make a phone call to find out if a person is on the database as being previously dismissed for gross misconduct.
Cashiers can also help ensure their site isn’t seen as an easy target by being alert at all times. “Many staff we’ve spoken to after the offence will say they were suspicious,” says Eastwood. “If you are suspicious then don’t release the pump until the driver has looked at you and you’ve seen who they are. If the registration plate doesn’t look right don’t serve them. The Petroleum Licence requirement is that cashiers should only release the pump to be used if the fuel is going into a vehicle’s fuel tank or an approved container, and the person using the pump is over 16. If they’re doing their job as per the law – and we know that’s very difficult when it’s busy and they’re on their own – they should be making checks anyway.”
An ever-increasing array of security equipment and services is now on the market, jostling for the retailer’s attention. Integrating CCTV within the EPoS system can make detecting and proving criminal activity a lot easier.
Softoption Developments offers solutions which allow the retailer to automatically capture images of customers filling up and their vehicle number plates, as well as views of every transaction at the checkout. This can also be useful for detecting staff fraud. Stuart Forrister, technical director at Softoption, says: “Our CCTV Controller software can interface with security cameras to log images of tills and their cashiers for all till-related events. This enables retailers to see exactly how cashiers process each transaction, and such image sequences can easily be viewed and printed through the Retail Controller back office system.”
Torex Retail can offer another integrated security system called PumpWatch. Again, this is linked into the EPoS. Huw Carey, sales director for petrol and convenience at Torex, explains: “When the nozzle is removed from the pump, a dome camera takes a digital image. It then does the same with their vehicle. The system then follows the whole transaction from pump to store. The picture is linked to the transaction. When the customer comes in to pay, the cashier recalls the pump used and the screen will show the image recorded. If there is a drive-off you can easily search back for the mug shot and registration number.”
Another innovation that specifically targets drive-offs is Drivestop, which uses a stinger system to deter fuel thieves. Former independent retailer Jag Mudhar, managing director of Drivestop, spent eight years developing the system after drive-offs put him out of business.
Launched in 2004, it is currently installed on five forecourts and has reduced the number of incidents to almost zero on these sites. At least 50 drive-offs have been prevented and several offenders have been caught by the police as a result.
The Drivestop system consists of a series of on-site warnings, including wall and pump signs, traffic lights and audio recordings. If these are ignored and a retailer realises a drive-off is in progress, they can activate a floor plate stinger as the car leaves. Mudhar consulted police and local authorities when developing the system and says it is ‘perfectly legal’ to deflate the tyres of a vehicle where theft is involved. However, the aim is to deter the culprit before it is necessary.
Drivestop is available in various packages to suit retailers’ needs. Recent developments include a CashCon Alert system which detects a vehicle moving away from a pump and alerts the cashier in the event of a drive-off. There is also a new economical package specifically designed for small independents with finance deals to rent or to lease the system available.
Forecourt staff might also benefit from specific training for dealing with difficult situations. For example, GSL Managed Services offers one-day safety training courses, including an Armed Hold Up and Handling Aggression programme specifically designed for people working in areas where customer service and cash transactions are combined.
CCTV CASE STUDY
Boxtone Crawley owns two forecourts including the BP Spar Crawley Avenue service station in West Sussex. Located on a dual carriageway, the four-lane filling station and c-store serve a busy commercial area and local community. Like many forecourts the site has suffered from drive-offs, with around five to six incidents a week at an average loss of £30 each time. Other problems include shoplifting and violence towards staff.
In 2005, Boxtone contacted forecourt security specialists AGE Systems – the brief was to provide a new system that was easy to use and inexpensive. AGE’s director Jason Gargiulo visited the site to evaluate its requirements and propose a solution. This included keeping costs down by re-utilising some of the existing equipment, such as colour cameras, which were in good working order but needed repositioning for better fields of view. The old single channel digital recorder and separate multiplexer were replaced with the Honeywell HRHD 16, a digital video recorder (DVR) with built-in multiplexer. The HRHD allows 16 cameras to record at the same time and the multiplexer function can provide a view showing all images simultaneously, in real-time, or they can be switched to show a full screen image of one camera on a monitor. The DVR provides excellent picture quality from the cameras and number plates are easy to read.
The new digital recorder was installed in manager Debbie Prince’s office – the old system had been installed in an upstairs office – making it quicker and easier to monitor suspicious activity and respond promptly. When played back on a Windows XP PC, she can zoom in on an image to see more detailed information. The recorder is used regularly during the day and if there is an incident Debbie can check the cameras within seconds and get the information and evidence to pass on to the police.
Monitors over the entrance doors also show potential thieves that they’re being recorded and the quality of the recording is very good. As a result, shop theft, particularly of alcohol, has gone down by around 80%. Jason Gargiulo from AGE says: “Effective security is all about using the right equipment in the right way. It’s really important to think about what you need and then use the tools to the greatest effect.”
EYES IN THE SKY
Skyguard is a new personal safety service that has been running since September 2005 which could help protect forecourt staff working alone, particularly late at night. A pocket-sized device, called a Skyminder, uses GPS satellite positioning and GSM mobile phone technology and is linked to a 24-hour emergency response centre. If a staff member feels threatened or is in trouble they can discreetly activate the Skyminder to send a message to the response centre. A trained operator will be provided with personal details, a photograph and a precise location. It will also open a two-way audio link so the operator can hear what’s happening and assess the situation before alerting either the emergency services or one of a fleet of over 700 response vehicles.
Skyguard director Patrick Dealty says he is keen to trial the new system with a forecourt retailer.
FUEL CARD FRAUD
Strathclyde police have warned petrol retailers to be aware of potential fraudsters using fuel cards after a recent incident where just one card was used in a number of transactions to obtain £11,000-worth of fuel.
Cards may be obtained in a number of different ways – they can be simply stolen from a vehicle, cloned, or sold on by a legitimate user, before being reported stolen at a later date.
Sergeant Jakeway of Strathclyde Police community safety department says: “Each card is specific to a vehicle and to eradicate this crime forecourt staff need to be more vigilant and to take the necessary steps to protect themselves and the profit of the business. Banks and building societies use a number of measures to protect against fraud, but to avoid fuel card fraud retailers must rely heavily on their staff.
“They should always check the registration number of the vehicle against the card, and make sure an unrealistic amount of fuel has not been drawn. If in doubt, ask the driver to confirm their identity and retain the card. If a customer becomes aggressive, staff should think about their own safety first, initially seeking the assistance of a colleague or supervisor and then the police. Do everything you can to avoid violence and if this means returning the card then do so as a last resort. Your safety is paramount.”
Online authorisation technology is also available and used by many fuel cards to validate sales.