With gas prices soaring through the roof, more than doubling from this time last year, everybody is feeling the pinch. Some are even resorting to stealing fuel in various ways.
In Newton County, in the first five months of 2008, there have been 25 reports of people filling up at the pump and driving off before paying. In 2007 there were 62 gas drive-offs. The city of Covington had 67 reported gas drive-offs in 2006, 58 in 2007 and 14 so far for 2008.
Although the numbers fluctuate month to month, the largest spike of drive-offs reported in Covington over the last two years - 13 in August 2006 - occurred at the tail end of an 8-month price jump that saw prices rise in the Atlanta area from $1.89 to $2.93.
Many of the larger chain gas stations, such as QuickTrip, have already taken precautions against gas drive-offs, even before the recent price increases, by moving to pre-pay only
or systems that allow only identified drivers to pump before paying, said Mike Wilson, assistant manager at the QT on Emory Street and U.S. Highway 278 in Covington.
It's the smaller mom-and-pop stations that still see incidents of gas drive-offs because they still occasionally allow pumping before payment, although many have restricted that practice as well.
Sheeba Aduhaideri, manager at a Covington BP gas station, said they allow pumping before paying only for their regular customers and elderly customers.
"We have to be really careful," she said. "We don't put it on for any new faces or new customers."
Nick Lachani, owner of the Chevron on Elk's Club Road and U.S. Highway 278, said he usually sees two or three drive-offs a month, but usually doesn't bother reporting them unless he can get a tag number or description.
All the gas station owners interviewed reported both gas and retail purchases from inside their stores were down anywhere from 25 to 40 percent.
Akbar Ali, owner of the Shell Food Mart on Covington Bypass and Ga. Highway 142, said he hopes the recent decision not to raise the gas excise tax will have some impact. Governor Sonny Perdue recently announced he would not be raising the present tax, at 18.5 cents per gallon, to 21.4 cents a gallon.
But gas station owners aren't the only ones hit by gas thieves. Several area businesses reported thefts of oil or fuel from work vehicles.
Midas Muffler lost about $1,000 worth of oil used for oil changes when an unidentified red tanker apparently helped itself to oil in the early morning hours of May 24, as captured on a surveillance video and described in a Covington Police Department report. Owner Mike Jones said this was the first time something like this had happened and that the price of oil had increased about 30 percent from the beginning of the year.
Private citizens are also experiencing fuel thefts, according to police reports. County resident Mandi Aikens and her husband woke up April 1 only to find the tank of their Ford F-150, which was parked in their driveway, had been emptied of approximately $40 worth of fuel. Aikens said they considered getting a locking gas cap for the truck, which had been broken into in the past, but had heard some thieves might drill a hole in the tank.
In another NCSO report, two men were arrested at the Gross Lake Apartments while apparently attempting to take gasoline from a 2001 Buick Century. They were caught with a hose stuck in the tank, utility knives and a plastic cup that smelled strongly of gasoline, according to the report.
Schools and institutions are not immune to the long fingers, or hoses, of a gas thief either.
Clements Middle School was reportedly hit at least four times by a thief that siphoned diesel from a school bus, according to Newton County Sheriff's Office reports. In one incident, about $100 worth of diesel was sucked out during the early morning hours of March 3 in the school parking lot and about $175 worth was taken during the night between March 12 and 13.
As a precaution, city of Oxford Facilities Supervisor Jody Reid said Oxford's fuel supply is kept under lock and key, with only a few authorized persons having the key. The city logs all its gas use on paper and will be switching to a computerized logging system and keeps all work trucks locked inside the facilities building, said Reid,
Billy Bouchillon, public works director for the City of Covington, said the municipality hasn't had a problem with fuel theft, but that a video surveillance system was recently installed at the sanitation department for security. He added that the presence of Covington Police filling up their patrol vehicles at the department was probably a deterrent for any potential thieves.
Until gas prices level off, citizens, business owners and government workers alike will have to keep on their toes.