It has been said that desperate times call for desperate measures. Local police, however, say people should think twice about risking jail time just to save a few dollars at the pump.

"The cost is more than just the two gallons of gas someone doesn't pay for," said Salt Lake police detective Jeff Bedard.

Gas prices along the Wasatch Front have hit the $4 mark for regular unleaded. Many law enforcement agencies fear the new mark will fuel an already rapidly increasing number of gas theft cases along the Wasatch Front.

"Gas drive-offs have been an increasing problem for a year," said Salt Lake County sheriff's deputy Levi Hughes.

The problem of drivers filling up at the pump and taking off without paying occurs weekly, he said. And motorists seem to be adding new twists in their thefts in an attempt to get away with it.

Nearly every week, Hughes said deputies will investigate a gas drive-off in which the suspect vehicle either had its license plate removed, blacked out or had a different license plate put on the vehicle altogether.

"Sometimes they've kept an old plate around, like in the garage, and place it on their vehicle," he said.

In other cases, people will commit two crimes: obtaining a stolen license plate to put on the back of their car in order to steal gas.

About $112 million was lost from gas drive-offs nationwide in 2003, according to a recent article in the Baltimore Sun quoting the National Association of Convenience Stores.

"Gas thefts (locally) have definitely been on the rise the past six months. And it's been a pretty quick jump," Bedard said.

In addition to gas drive-offs and license plate changing, there has also been a problem nationally, though not nearly as prominent, with people puncturing or drilling holes into gas tanks.

Police say they have not heard of many local cases of gas tanks being punctured for their fuel. One incident, however, that received a lot of media attention occurred last month when a mini-van and delivery truck belonging to Alpine Medical Equipment were sabotaged.

One had its gas tank drilled into, the other had a fuel line cut. The sole motive for the crime appeared to be simply to get the gas, according to authorities. Because of the incident, the company was not able to make its daily scheduled deliveries of oxygen tanks, wheelchairs and beds to the homes of about 30 needy people.

Law enforcers are highly discouraging this type of theft, not just because it's illegal but also because it's extremely dangerous. Any type of spark caused by the drilling could have fatal consequences.

Denver authorities recently arrested two people in connection with a dozen cases of gas tank drilling or siphoning.

Many gas stations in Utah have switched to prepay pumps all day long to help prevent drive-offs. Investigators say those that haven't should consider doing so immediately.

Likewise, police also strongly suggest that gas stations take the time and money to install good surveillance cameras at the pump. Salt Lake police were recently able to solve about a dozen gas drive-offs because of good video from the stores.

But Bedard also noted the video has to be clear. Setting up surveillance video that only captures a drive-off from far away won't do any good, he said.

The problem with relying on an attendant to write down a plate as a nonpaying customer drives away, is that even if just one letter or number is wrong or switched, Hughes said the offender is rarely caught because of the time it takes to go through all the plate number variations to come up with the right one.


E-mail: [email protected]