A HIGHLY visible scheme to shame petrol retailers into doing more to tackle the growing problem of fuel theft across the region has been launched at a major supermarket.

A Durham Police squad van bearing signs saying “Criminals are stealing from this garage. . . you’re paying for their fuel” was left close to the Morrisons petrol station at North Road in Darlington earlier today (Thursday).

The supermarket has been identified as one of four ‘hot spots’ for fuel thefts in County Durham and officers hope that by making a visible statement they will encourage the company to take the issue more seriously.

Detective Superintendent Kevin Weir said the force had dealt with more than 500 incidents of fuel theft in recent months, many of which involved wider criminality including thefts of vehicles and number plates.

The force believes introducing pre-payment at filling stations would tackle the problem but the idea was rejected by Morrisons who said pre-payment was unpopular and inefficient for customers.

Det Supt Weir said most garages in County Durham and Darlington were signed up to the Forecourt Watch scheme but that some garages needed to work more closely with police.

He said: “Some of the incidents are people driving off after filling the vehicle and others are people claiming they’ve forgotten their purse.

“There is a knock on effect to fuel theft – some are stolen cars and they go on to commit further crimes around the region, all on a stolen tank of petrol.

“All that could be stopped by the garage have pre-pay pumps and that’s what we are trying to say.

“Morrisons know we are trying to engage with them to start a conversation and renegotiate with them about how to reduce these incidents.

“We are not saying every garage should have pre-payment but those with serious problems should be looking at it. Pre-payment is widespread in Europe and America and they don’t have these problems with fuel theft.”

In response, Morrisons director of retail petrol, Mark Todd said: “The overwhelming majority of our customers appreciate the opportunity to fill their vehicles as soon as they arrive at the pump and only pay for what they dispensed.

“Pre-payment is not only unpopular, but also inefficient for the customer. We keep an eye on the issue, but have no plans to introduce the system at present.”