Bilking, or the act of filling up and driving off without paying for it, is a serious crime in the petrol industry but figures revealed recently show that it annually costs the industry millions. The Petrol Retail Association (PRA), which represents 70% of forecourts, estimated that on average every year £30 million worth of fuel is lost due to bilking.

In order to stop this, and help free up police resources, the police chief has called for forecourts to “design out” bilking, something he believes is a feasible and immediate action.

Lowered police resources

Due to lower police resources, Lincolnshire Police was the first to announce they would not be responding directly to reports of bilking, but instead, they would act from the desk, or not at all unless a staff member was in direct danger. They would also attend the scene for aggravating factors such as larger theft or threats towards staff.

The force will continue to record all instances, but it found itself becoming a ‘civil debt collector’ and has now asked all forecourt owners to use local civil courts to gain the funds back from the theft of fuel.

The lowered police resources nationwide have meant the nearly one in five cases of bilking are not investigated or pursued by police. One such instance occurred in Grantham, where a forecourt owner, Ian Cruickshank, had his CCTV catch a thief stealing fuel, but Lincolnshire Police “didn’t follow it up.” Speaking to the Daily Mail, Mr Cruickshank said “It was clearly a theft and a blatant crime. I had clear CCTV evidence that I was being targeted by criminals. It’s infuriating.”

Forecourts nationwide have experienced an increase of up to 40% in some areas of bilking, taking the total up to over 25,000 reported cases nationwide, and the actual number will be much higher, considering the estimated £30 million a year loss estimated by the PRA.

Police chief solution

One solution proposed was to “design out” bilking by introducing forced pay at the pump or pay before fuel, something he says happens in most other countries. In the USA, for example, the pump is locked until you either insert a credit/debit card or until you have pre-paid at the till for a certain cash amount of fuel. The pump is then locked when you hit the pre-specified amount.

Simon Cole of the National Police Chiefs’ Council said that “The petroleum industry could design out bilking in 30 seconds by making people pay up front which is what they do in other countries. They don’t because the walk up in their shops is part of their business offer.”

However, this was dismissed by the commercial manager of the PRA as “not quite as simple” as it sounds. Gordon Balmer went on to say that retrofitting pumps across the UK with pay at pumps card machines could cost at the very minimum £20,000 for an average petrol station, some others quoted much higher. For most petrol stations, where profit margins are slim, a extra £20,000 cost is something most cannot afford unless they can prove a return on investment, something that is not likely.

Mr Balmer also added that up to 50% of petrol stations profits come from the convenience store itself. Profit margins are so low on fuel that for a station to survive, it needs to have an alternative source of income to be able to pay staff decent wages and create profits. It may come as a surprise to some that up to 70% of the UK forecourts are actually owned by individuals who then choose to license stores to different fuels. For example, one store could be owned by an individual but choose to sell Shell for five years, and then go on to sell Applegreen later on. Those stations owned by larger companies may be able to foot the bill for retrofitting pumps with “Pay at pump” machines but it is unlikely that independents could.

PRA suggests an option

What do you think of the police chiefs suggestion? Would you be willing to pre-pay for fuel or would you rather pay at the pump? Let us know in the comments below

The PRA released a statement condemning Mr Coles statement and instead said that the police should help to pass on responsibility to business owners of forecourts by allowing them to help pursue crimes in the civil court and save police time.

“The UK has seen a 40% reduction in filling stations over the past 15 years,” stressed Brian Madderson, head of the PRA. “Those remaining have developed their retail offer to better serve their customers, with many lost amenities from banks and post offices migrating into the store of petrol stations, particularly in rural areas.

Rather than lecturing the victims of crime, the government should be empowering responsible businesses to enforce the law where the police are too overstretched to intervene. One solution would be to give petrol retailers electronic access to the DVLA’s Vehicle Keeper database, so they can pursue drive-offs through the civil courts and ease pressure on the police.”

The PRA are suggesting to work closely with the police rather than increase pressure on the police to perform, a more economical solution surely?

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