A worryingly sharp rise in theft of petrol and diesel from forecourts is adding to the retail industry’s already seemingly inescapable crime problem.

While the notion may seem dramatic, it was in fact proven this week by the results of an RAC Foundation Freedom of Information request to the DVLA for July to September this year. It showed 39,563 requests for vehicle keeper data in relation to fuel theft had been made. That’s 77% higher than the same quarter in 2022.

It gets worse. When compared with before the pandemic, it’s a 362% rise.

Stealing fuel is known as ‘bilking’ and falls under the Theft Act 1978. It brings a maximum penalty of two years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. 

In one sense, the rise in this crime is only to be expected. Forecourt retailers will undoubtedly be experiencing some theft from hard-up drivers during the cost of living crisis. But the scale of the uplift hints towards a much bigger problem – organised crime. 

It was almost inevitable, considering wholesalers, supermarkets and convenience stores are facing the same threat.

Bilking is a hard crime for forecourts to gain justice

On top of increased labour and energy costs, rising fuel theft is adding significantly to the forecourt sector’s costs. According to the British Oil Security Syndicate, bilking causes average losses of £10,500 per site. That’s almost £100m. 

But it’s not only costing businesses, customers feel the burden too. As RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding says: “Financial losses to companies ultimately lead to higher prices for us all.”

It’s not an easy – or even safe – problem to solve. Armed thieves have been caught on forecourt cameras, some with machetes, making it a potentially deadly health and safety issue to involve staff.

The process of obtaining driver details – by identifying number plates through CCTV – from the DVLA has barriers too. It’s a paper-based system that relies on the postal service to report it to the police.

Comparatively, car park associations can access the DVLA database at the touch of a button to file parking fines, which is only a civil matter. 

Forecourt retailers therefore feel powerless and this leads to, in many cases, thieves getting away with theft. And a lack of police resources over the years hasn’t helped.

Biggest supermarkets have agreed to fund police projects

But things might be about to change. Earlier this year, the government’s target to recruit 20,000 more police officers in England and Wales was reached, equating to almost 150,000 in total. 

While the industry is yet to feel the impact of that extra force, it’s a step in the right direction. More bobbies on the beat should help to rid the stigma of police not pursuing theft cases valued under £200. 

It’s not all in the hands of police, however. Organised crime implies a greater operation is at play, meaning forecourt retailers need to work together and share data to pinpoint patterns of gangs targeting forecourts.

It’s a plausible method, particularly if the DVLA streamlined the process for retailers accessing vehicle keeper information. All forecourts will have some means of capturing vehicle number plates through CCTV or ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) cameras. They could collectively share that data with police to build a holistic picture of gangs targeting forecourts. 

That’s the essence of Project Pegasus. Some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets and retailers have agreed to fund a police operation to crack down on shoplifting gangs. It will see retailers share their crime data with each other and police analysts to better understand the tactics used by organised crime groups and identify more offenders. 

It’s proof that retailers and police forces can work together to crack down on crime. And those efforts need to be extended across the forecourts, too. Then we might finally see some changes.