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Revealed: 80% of petrol thefts in Kent return no suspect as drivers leave forecourts without paying

Family-run petrol stations are having to call in bailiffs to recover just a fraction of the “thousands upon thousands” of pounds worth of fuel stolen from the forecourt.

Over the last five years, drivers have been consistently filling up at the pumps and making off without payment in high numbers.

A fuel theft caught on CCTV which involved a gang behind almost 80 thefts across north and west Kent
A fuel theft caught on CCTV which involved a gang behind almost 80 thefts across north and west Kent

The offence, known in some areas as 'bilking', is far from a new crime but has steadily increased across the country since the pandemic and when the cost of living crisis “kicked in”.

And Kent is not immune from the fuel-swiping epidemic.

Last year, 971 reports of people failing to pay at the pumps in the county were made to police.

It had been 1,116 in 2022 and 752 the year before that - although businesses and industry experts say the actual figure is likely to be far higher due to not all incidents being reported.

More alarmingly, very few ever end in a suspect being successfully identified or prosecuted with much of the money never recouped.

A freedom of information request sent by KentOnline to the county’s police force revealed last year around 80% of “drive-off” cases ended with no one brought to justice. This is an increase on the previous year when it had been just 70%.

Of 971 cases last year, just 26 saw a suspect either charged or summonsed for an offence (2.67%).

But while there might be little sympathy for big oil companies taking a dent to their profits, it is often independent traders who are left out of pocket.

And some fed-up fuel businesses are having to take matters into their own hands in an attempt to retrieve some of what they are owed.

Despite the green glow of the forecourt and BP logo, Parkfoot in London Road, West Malling is a family-run, independent petrol station and lost revenue can be devastating for its employees.

A supervisor at the garage, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “When BP released all its earnings for the year there was a craze on TikTok of people saying go in and pay what you want because they earn enough in the tax.

Parkfoot garage in London Road, West Malling
Parkfoot garage in London Road, West Malling

“We had people coming in saying I filled up £60 but here is £40 because you have the tax on it.

“Parkfoot sells BP fuel that they buy from the company meaning any petrol taken is a direct loss to the garage, not the corporation.

“It’s so hard to explain to people with the mindset of ‘it says BP so it must be a BP’ but it says BP because we want to sell quality fuel but it’s our fuel by that point.

“Any loss comes straight from us not them.”

The staff member also explained how the issue is even bigger than what the police figures show.

They added: “Since all the cost-of-living crisis kicked in, bilking or petrol thefts has gone through the roof.

“There are times we can lose up to £300 a week, sometimes more.

“It does vary and is a huge problem and being a private business, the amount of money we lose from it is completely unreal it’s thousands upon thousands.”

Where police do probe thefts, investigations are said to take up a large amount of police resource and involves officers viewing hours of CCTV footage.

The garage in West Malling has now taken matters into its own hands and paid for an ANPR service from a company that records registration plates entering the forecourt and alerts staff at the till if it is a known petrol thief.

It also hires a bailiff company to chase what’s owed and will take people to small claims court rather than going to the police.

This means although almost 1,000 cases are recorded yearly the number could be far higher.

Parkfoot is trying to recoup some of the losses from petrol thefts which impact their family-run business
Parkfoot is trying to recoup some of the losses from petrol thefts which impact their family-run business

The supervisor added: “Where we now use a separate company called VARS who are a bailiff company. We send off all our cases of non-payments to them which does bring back some of the money for a fee.

“We don’t enjoy it because it ruins the customer experience if it is one of the customers who’s had a bad day and left their wallet at home and five minutes later, they’re back to pay, they’ll find two weeks later a letter in the post explaining their missed payment.

“When people come back, they come back angry, and we don’t want them to be.

“It’s very difficult for us to take the extra fees off but it’s turning into it now people have to be told even if it was an accident you are the one at fault.

So-called ‘drive-offs’ where drivers fuel up on petrol before making off without paying are a big problem for fuel stations
So-called ‘drive-offs’ where drivers fuel up on petrol before making off without paying are a big problem for fuel stations

“We love giving an experience for the community and we are there for them and to have these letters sent out we do not enjoy at all.

“The amount of money we put in for technology to keep track of people it’s just not good.

“You spend countless amounts putting in new ANPR cameras which means a small business like ours has to put its prices up.

“They’re going up anyway. People aren’t happy about it but if people aren’t paying it puts us in the hole and could mean people start losing their jobs eventually.”

Despite the forecourt retrieving some cash back through the bailiffs, service fees and the cost of the camera tech means the company still takes a loss on each resolved case.

On the day KentOnline spoke to the garage there had already been three bilkings.

The amount taken does change from day-to-day but the supervisor was able to give a ballpark figure.

‘They’re stealing from us and there is nothing you can do about it’

They said: “Figures do vary but a good month is £2,000. But we were doing our reports at the end of last year, running through November to December we were losing £7,000.

“It’s always plodded along however recently in the last three to four months it is a lot higher than what it used to be.

“It went up about two years ago after COVID, but it has started to go up again.”

In a lot of cases, people will come into the shop and explain the situation as to why they cannot pay, whether it be a misplaced or forgotten wallet while on the way to the garage.

Last year, a mum from Gillingham was unable to leave a petrol station when her phone payment did not go through.

But in some cases, the supervisor said people would fill up their cars get back in, and leave all while smiling and waving through the window.

They continued: “You feel helpless that’s the simplest word to use for it.

“You feel like the victim especially a little garage like this trying to help the community. We do the raffles at the markets at Christmas, we help the schools by raising money.

“We’re at a loss on them but we’re helping the community then Joe Bloggs comes down, puts in £70 and clears off. You sit and think why I am doing this?

“They’re stealing from us and there is nothing you can do about it.

“It is sickening. For me how long I’ve been here it is a family and I feel part of the family and if they steal it feels like they’re stealing from me, and I take it to heart.

“I know I shouldn’t feel that way but when you’ve been in business for so long you take it to heart.”

Superintendent Pete Steenhuis, head of prevention at Kent Police, said: “Thefts of fuel from petrol stations are financially damaging for the businesses concerned and Kent Police will always investigate when there is evidence to show an individual has taken steps to intentionally avoid payment.

“For example, if they have repeatedly made off without paying, attempted to conceal their number plates or used false details.

“In these circumstances officers carry out all reasonable lines of inquiry to identify and locate those responsible including a review of CCTV footage and the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras to track the vehicles concerned.

“Where people have forgotten to pay or do not have the means to pay, it is a civil issue for the business concerned and will not be regarded as a criminal offence by the force.

“The police service nationally is supportive of the industry’s attempts to reduce the number of reported fuel thefts, for example by installing more ‘pay at pump’ machines. We also continue to work closely with retailers through our business crime reduction partnerships and advisory groups to keep them updated on emerging trends and techniques used by criminals.”

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