Our business, Greg’s Petroleum Service, began in 1961 in California. Since then, we have grown but remain a family-owned and operated fuel and oil distributor. Many of our customers are also local, family-owned small businesses. Over the years, like many businesses, we’ve faced hard times and seen difficult circumstances in our home state of California. A recent opinion piece from Elizabeth Graham, CEO of the California Fuel and Convenience Alliance, in the Capitol Weekly caught our attention. Here’s why.

Graham’s editorial is about the rise in fuel theft and the commercial property crime plaguing our state. According to data from the Public Policy Institute of California, the commercial robbery rate has increased by 13.3% since 2019, with an alarming increase of 9.1% in 2022 alone. Commercial robbery theft takes many forms, from petty shoplifting to smash-and-grab thefts to organized retail crime looting episodes, burglaries, arson, catalytic converter theft, and fuel theft.

Many of our customers are convenience store owners or C-store businesses and are particularly vulnerable to these types of criminal activity. Many C-stores are open late or 24/7 and often minimally staffed. They may be located in sparsely populated areas without easy access to emergency services. Or they may be convenient targets for criminal activity. As CEO of the California Fuel and Convenience Alliance, Graham knows how C-store owners are vulnerable and wants to do something about it. In her opinion piece, she says, “Unfortunately, in my role as our association’s CEO, I hear these stories all the time. It’s hard to witness the emotional and financial toll these crimes take on business owners who pour their heart and soul into their enterprises, only to have their hard work reduced to ashes by criminals.”

How are C-Store owners vulnerable to criminal activity?
C-Store owners face several criminal activity threats, from petty shoplifting to smash and grabs and fuel theft. In 2021, there were 37,561 violent criminal offenses, including robberies in convenience and gas stores across the nation. Data from the National Retail Federation’s 2022 security survey showed that:

  • Retail theft increased 26.5% from 2020- 2021
  • Inventory and cash losses were valued at $94.5 billion
  • 37% of inventory and cash loss was due to external theft

As you can see, this data shows that C-stores are under attack and facing a huge battle to prevent loss and protect their businesses. Some businesses in California even report that they cannot get insurance to cover their theft losses because they’ve been targeted many times. So, what can C-store owners do to protect their businesses? Here are some preventative security measures that can help.

  • Improve lighting inside and outside the store, especially around vulnerable areas like fuel pumps.
  • Invest in security gates, windows, and high-grade locks. Install security cages for high-risk items like tobacco, electronics, and more.
  • Reduce blind spots with an open-concept layout and install mirrors to make every corner of the store visible to the cashier.
  • Install visible security cameras at all entrances and high-risk areas, including fuel pumps, ATMs, near high-value items, and in backrooms. Ensure the cameras can adequately record at night and that the recordings are saved for at least a month or more.
  • Ensure all employees are trained on proper safety and loss prevention procedures.
  • Have a policy to reduce the amount of cash kept in the store and install a smart safe that records the amount of money deposited. It’s a great way to monitor cash flow and prevent discrepancies.

While these tips and other safety measures can help keep C-stores safer, Graham points out that, ultimately, we need new solutions at the state level to help lower crime rates. She says, “Policymakers must prioritize preventative solutions that empower businesses to improve the security surrounding their premises. Installing proven crime prevention technologies is a proactive step that can fortify businesses against potential threats. By streamlining and incentivizing the adoption of these technologies, the state can better support businesses in protecting their properties, employees, and customers.”

How is the fuel industry vulnerable to rising crime rates?
While robbery and organized retail crime are a big concern for C-store owners, they also have to consider rising fuel theft rates. Unfortunately for most C-store owners, fuel theft is more challenging to prevent, as it usually takes place outside the store at the pumps themselves. Some of the ways fuel is being stolen include:

  • Card skimmers. These devices are sneakily installed at pump scanners to skim customers’ credit card information when they swipe their cards. Between 2021 and 2022, insistence on credit cards comprised of skimming devices rose 300%. Luckily, there are new technologies that are making skimming fraud harder. Chip-and-pin credit card devices and tap-and-go, contactless payment devices are helping to reduce skimming fraud. So, C-stores with these devices installed at the pump are more protected. However, experts warn that criminals are always looking for ways to use technology to game the system, and it may only be a matter of time before a new theft method is invented for the same purpose.
  • Bypassing the fuel pump: Handy criminals have figured out ways to bypass fuel pumps by putting them into maintenance mode. When they do this, they temporarily turn off the point-of-sale technology, as it would need to be if a technician were servicing the pump. The criminal then continues to pump fuel without paying for what they take.
  • Stealing from tanks: One of the most daring forms of fuel theft is stealing directly from the fuel tanks. In these situations, a large van or truck parks over the tank pads, and the thieves lower the pumps into the underground fuel tanks themselves, bypassing the pumps altogether.

These are just a few of the most brazen ways thieves steal fuel from C-stores, besides the most common forms of fuel theft like driving away without paying or misusing a company fuel card. So, what can C-store owners do to prevent these types of fuel theft? Here are a few ideas:

  • Regularly inspect fuel pumps throughout each shift. Ensure no skimming devices have been installed, and check that the pump has not been tampered with.
  • Install cameras at each pump that capture vehicle license plates and customer’s faces.
  • Train staff to maintain visibility of the pumps and watch for suspicious activity. Install intercoms so staff can safely interact from a distance with customers.
  • Adopt a pre-pay fuel practice requiring customers to purchase fuel upfront or authorize the purchase on their card before filling their tanks.

Fuel theft is a growing problem. Many C-store businesses struggle with rising criminal activity, and fuel theft is difficult to prevent, especially as gas and diesel prices increase. As Graham says in her opinion piece, “Fuel theft poses a grave threat to our State’s economic stability, the financial losses are substantial and impact the entire fuel chain. The escalating instances of fuel theft contribute significantly to the rise in fuel costs, exacerbating the financial burden on California consumers and all businesses that rely on [the] movement of goods.”

As a local California fuel and lubricant distributor, and fleet fueling solutions provider, we have seen how difficult the recent increase in retail criminal activity has been. We support our customers who have been affected and support those, like Graham, who are calling for more help preventing these criminal activities from hurting small businesses. While preventative measures can help, we must work together to find a solution that protects businesses and the community from rising criminal activity. As Graham concludes in her opinion piece, “It’s often stated that the best cure for a life-threatening illness or disease is prevention – this approach is also necessary to lower crime rates. It is my hope that, as concerned citizens, we can collectively urge our policymakers to give equal attention to the silent crisis of commercial property crime. Our communities depend on it.”