As gasoline prices in Maryland reached their all-time high yesterday, some service station dealers said they were seeing an increase in "gas and dash" - customers who drive away from the pumps without paying.
In Salisbury, drive-offs have become so frequent that police have advised service station and convenience store owners to keep a closer watch on their pumps.
"We found the gas drive-offs was causing our theft rate to go up," said Lt. Elmer Davis of the Police Department's community affairs office. One convenience store in town was struck nine times by customers driving away without paying, he said.
The problem seems not to be confined by demographics. At River Hill Mobil Station in western Howard County, in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the state, four customers drove off without paying one day last week, said manager Tory Lane.
Though many gas stations in the Baltimore area require customers to pay before pumping, some station owners, including River Hill's Kereakos Zuras, want to give customers the convenience of pumping first.
"We want to separate ourselves from the rest of the competition," said Zuras, whose Mobil station recently won an industry award for customer service. "People come here for that."
Zuras said the percentage of people who drive away without paying is low but noted that in the past month the problem has gotten worse.
"Every day we struggle with it," he said.
Most of the offenders are teen-agers, he said, and apparently the ability to pay is not the issue. One boy who ran off without paying three times is the son of a local politician.
Zuras said when the station told the father, he paid for the son's gas.
Baltimore-area police departments said they had not noticed a significant increase in reports of gas theft, but Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, an industry group in Alexandria, Va., said the number of arrests is rising elsewhere.
"People are getting caught and convicted," he said. "Just like any theft, crime doesn't pay, and people are prosecuted."
Matthew T. Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, said the rise in gasoline theft does not reflect an erosion of society's morals but could be a backlash against rising prices and reports of price gouging.
"It's a form of consumer rebellion," he said. "The market fluctuations are beyond the grasp of nearly everyone."
Maryland's gasoline prices are lower than those in the Midwest but are increasing, said Myra Wieman, a spokeswoman for Mid-Atlantic AAA.
Yesterday, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in Maryland reached an all-time high of $1.63. A year ago, the price was $1.12 a gallon. In March last year, the price was 94 cents a gallon, she said.
Maryland's previous all-time high, $1.43 a gallon, was reached in December 1990, shortly before the Persian Gulf war, Wieman said.
Losses from drive-offs cost retailers about $2,600 per store last year, said Lenard.
With higher gas prices, he said, that number is bound to increase.
Convenience store owners who sell gasoline are reluctant to require customers to pay before pumping, he said.
"The major disadvantage is, you are trying to make the experience as convenient as possible," he said.
"The other disadvantage is, it can sometimes limit the market."
Customers allowed to pump first might purchase other items when they come into the store to pay, Lenard said.
Most service stations in the Baltimore area that focus on gasoline sales and servicing cars require customers to pay first.
Roy Littlefield, director of the Washington-Maryland-Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, said the 1,400 dealers in his organization have not seen a significant increase in the number of people driving away without paying.
"The main reason we do not have more of it in the urban areas, we have long since gone to paying before you pump the gasoline," he said.
Columbia Exxon switched to a prepay policy about a year ago to deter gas thefts, said manager Wendell Harris. "Sometimes there would not be any at all for a week or two, and then there would be four or five in a week," he said.
Paul Petroleum Products Inc., which operates seven service stations from Bel Air to Frederick, also recently began requiring customers to pay first unless the attendants know them.
Wilma Lovern, the company's district manager, said employees are warned to be careful about whom they let pump without paying.
"If you approve someone, you better make sure, or it is coming out of your pocket," she tells her attendants.
In Salisbury, most service stations and convenience stores let customers pump first, Davis said. After the spate of gas-and-dash incidents sent the town's theft rate up, police urged dealers to be more careful.
Police suggested that the stations require customers to pay before pumping after dark and urged attendants to make eye contact with customers to discourage drive-offs.
The advice appears to be working. The number of customers fueling and fleeing has decreased drastically in the past month, Davis said.
Crown Petroleum spokesman Steve Wise said his company advises its retailers to use a pay-first policy, and area police departments say that is sound advice.
But some station owners are reluctant to require customers to pay first because they don't want to discourage business.
The owners of the Shell Food Mart in Ellicott City changed from prepay to allowing customers to pump first during the day because they found that the convenience of being able to pump first attracted more customers.
Since the change, the station hasn't had any significant trouble with drive-offs, said Marty Townsley, one of the owners.
Most station owners say they and their employees try to stop customers if they see them attempting to leave without paying.
Usually, they report the incidents, along with vehicle descriptions and license numbers, to police.
Stealing gasoline is a misdemeanor that can result in a $500 fine and a prison term of up to 18 months.