Driving off without paying for petrol: what does the law say?

Making Off Without Payment is an offence under the Theft Act 1978. The police do not always investigate petrol station drive-offs, however…..

As the cost of fuel continues to soar, the number of people attempting to drive away from petrol stations without paying also seems certain to rise.

Known by the police as ‘bilking’, this offence costs every petrol station around £10,500 per year. And figures obtained by Crown Oil show 99 percent of crimes don’t result in a prosecution.

The act of leaving a petrol station without paying for fuel is covered by the Theft Act 1978. The offence of Making Off Without Payment (MOWP) is outlined in section three of the Act.

The Theft Act 1978 states: ‘A person who, knowing that payment on the spot for any goods supplied or service done is required or expected from him, dishonestly makes off without having paid as required or expected, and with intent to avoid payment of the amount due, shall be guilty of an offence.’

In serious cases, a person found guilty of Making Off Without Payment could face a maximum of two years in prison and an unlimited fine. Defendants convicted in a Magistrates’ Court can be fined up to £5,000 and/or jailed for up to six months.

However, the Police may not investigate

However, the police may not investigate the crime of making off without paying for fuel unless there is proof of criminal intent. Devon and Cornwall Police hit the headlines when a forecourt owner was told officers would only respond if there was an obvious ‘intent’ to steal.

A request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in 2019 shows that, of 897 offences of Making Off Without Payment, Devon and Cornwall Police listed a total of 616 as ‘Investigated as far as reasonably possible. No suspect identified. Some of these may not have been related to a petrol station drive-off.

In a separate FOI, West Yorkshire Police said it did ‘not have a specific policy in relation to the offence of leaving a petrol station without paying, but it has ‘specific guidance’ for forecourt retailers.

‘In summary, if the suspect draws fuel, enters the store and purchases items before paying for those items, the call taker will ask whether the suspect has been asked if they have taken any fuel.

‘If the question was asked, the offence made out is one of fraud by false representation. If the question was not asked, the offence is made off without payment.

‘Where fuel is drawn and the offender simply drives off, the offence is making off without payment. However, where this is done in a vehicle bearing false registration plates, the appropriate offence is theft – non-specific. The appropriate crime record is then completed.’

If petrol station staff believe the act of making off without payment was unintentional or accidental, they are advised to contact the DVLA. The retailer can then seek to recoup the losses using the details of the car’s registered keeper.

How to prevent petrol station theft

In the past, police chiefs have suggested the petroleum industry could eliminate ‘bilking’ by making motorists pay for fuel upfront – a practice that is common in other countries.

However, retailers are reluctant to implement this because the walk-in shop, with its range of high-profit-margin drinks and snacks, is a core part of their business.

Fuel theft looks likely to decline in the longer term, as increasing numbers of drivers switch to electric. At present, however, the British Oil Security Syndicate estimates that UK police forces dedicate more than 800,000 resource hours to the problem each year.