APCO petrol stations win power for business owners to fight back against petrol thieves

A Victorian service station franchise has been granted the right to pursue petrol thieves, as earlier this year the Victorian Police stopped pursuing them.

The Geelong Magistrates Court yesterday made a landmark decision, giving APCO, a service station franchise network with 23 stores, the power to request driver details through VicRoads and chase-up repayments.

APCO can now obtain the details of thieves through the car’s number plate on the VicRoads database and initiate legal action to recover lost funds.

As petrol prices and the cost of living have increased, so has the amount of petrol thievery.

Figures suggest petrol theft in Australia could have increased by as much as 150% in the past two years.

Victorian crime statistics revealed petrol drive-offs in Victoria rose by 20% in 2011-12 and at the time contributed to around 5% of the state’s total crime.

But despite the rise in petrol theft, in July this year Victoria police opted to no longer investigate petrol drive-offs unless there is clear evidence of criminal offence, something which is often hard to prove.

A Victoria Police spokesperson told SmartCompany the police were investigating around 5000 petrol drive-offs a year, which equates to nearly 18,000 hours of police time.

“Over the past 12 months we’ve discussed possible solutions with the petrol industry to minimise the number of petrol drive-offs committed each year,” the spokesperson said.

“Police now respond to reports of theft of petrol from a service station where there is clear information of a criminal offence. We’ll check the number plate, and if a stolen car or stolen number plates, have been used in the theft, or if the service station operator can provide sufficient information to establish a theft has occurred, we will continue to investigate.”

Should there be insufficient evidence to show the petrol was stolen with criminal intent, the police abandon the investigation and it is up to the service station proprietor “to handle the matter as a civil debt, rather than involving police”.

But APCO director Robert Anderson told SmartCompany this is resulting in hundreds, sometimes thousands of lost dollars a month for petrol stations and it has resulted in more petrol station cashiers personally chasing down thieves.

“Retailers are taking things into their own hands and there will be some serious incidents,” he says.

“It’s a real concern that retailers will take the law into their own hands, it can lead to ugly incidents with retailers chasing people up the street. These policies could encourage more crime, not discourage it.”

Anderson says the police should not be “debt collectors”, but when the policy was discussed he’d been under the impression the thefts would still be recorded and that repeat offenders would be caught. At the moment, he’s yet to see this come to fruition.

Anderson says he does not encourage his own employees to take the law into their own hands, but says the ruling by the Geelong Magistrates Court will allow him to recover much needed funds.

“There are other independents like us who are considering this too and I hope to see other retailers following suit, as the more who do it the more likely it will be a deterrent,” he says.

“Before July 1, 2013 it was a crime to steal fuel. So I’m not sure why the police see it as a crime to steal from any other kind of store, but it’s no longer considered a crime to drive off from a service station and leave without paying.”

When deciding to grant APCO powers to obtain the details of petrol thieves from VicRoads, Judicial Registrar Michael Bolte did not comment on the police policy, but said a “criminal act is a criminal act”.

The Victorian Police suggestion to petrol stations has been to adopt a prepaid or pay-at-the-pump system to minimise drive-offs.

But Anderson says this would be a great cost to petrol stations and result in lower revenues.

“During consultation all the stakeholders said this proposal was unreasonable. We need the customers coming into the store or it will dramatically impact on the sales at the till, it’s not a practical solution,” he says.

Australian Association of Convenience Stores chief executive Jeff Rogut told SmartCompany a prepaid system is not “a silver bullet”.

“It’s a major issue and prepay is not the silver bullet. It’s expensive for operators to put in this technology and the vast majority of customers do the right thing,” he says.

“If you go to Coles, Woollies or Myer and walk out with nail polish or a shirt, the police will charge you for shop lifting and we expect the same thing. Or other measures include on-the-spot fines or loss of demerit points, rather than it being up to the service station operator to recover their money.”

Anderson says this is the first case of its kind in the three years he’s been with the ACCS, but hopes it will set a precedent.

“This sets a precedent that the courts are seeing this as the serious issue that it is,” he says.

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