Tim Bohnenkamp, a manager at , expects a little grousing from customers when gas prices are on the rise.
"Oh yeah, we hear people complain about it every day, it seems like," he says of talk at the pump. "And it only gets worse as the prices go up."
What Bohnenkamp doesn't expect are customers driving off without paying for their fuel. Still, it's happening more often around Iowa and the country as gas prices inch closer to the $4 mark.
Since January, according to police reports from the , there have been six reported drive-offs at various gas stations in Waukee. Ames had a report of gas theft on March 2, and numerous other reports are coming in from around the country in Florida, New Hampshire and Nevada, among other places in recent days.
Experts Say There is Link Between Fuel Theft and Gas Prices
Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, says drive-offs are indeed trending as gas prices nationwide are on the rise. In 2010, the average loss per store was $1,440, almost twice the $761 from 2009.
"Gas theft has been a problem as long as people have sold gas," Lenard said last week. "Traditionally, it's been a problem with kids stealing five bucks worth and peeling out of the station but that's changed. Now, you could almost set the calendar - as gas prices increase, so do the thefts."
"Only, really, in the Midwest are there still retailers that will let you pump first and pay later. Those are the ones seeing a spike in thefts."
Lenard, who represents more than 120,000 conveniences stores selling about 80 percent of the gasoline in the United States, says thefts occur when people are disgruntled with a jump in fuel prices. He says that anger gets misdirected when consumers decide to drive-off without picking up the tab.
"These are customers who would normally never steal anything," he said. "But the prices go up 20 cents a gallon and they get angry and they decide, 'Well, that's it! I'm not paying for this!' and away they go. I wouldn’t say these people just woke up that morning intending to steal gas but even that dynamic has changed."
"Desperate" Drivers and the Honor System
Scott Baskerville, owner of Scott's Shoppe, an independently owned gas station and convenience store in Valley Junction not far from Waukee, said while drive-offs aren't a huge problem for them, he noticed the last time gas prices spiked, drive-offs increased.
"People started getting desperate. When you can steal 60 bucks in one shot, it's better than stealing 20," he said.
Lenard says most thefts are avoided when stations offer pay-at-the-pump or pre-payment before pumping. The gray area — the one that increases the chances of a theft — is when customers are on the honor system and agree to pay inside the station after they've filled up.
"Only, really, in the Midwest are there still retailers that will let you pump first and pay later," he says. "Those are the ones seeing a spike in thefts."
Bohnenkamp said he's been a manager with Casey's General Stores for five years. In that period of time, he hasn't had a lot of drive-offs, but he knows what to look for, just in case.
"We've been warned and we know that it could get worse if prices go up," he said. "We try to keep an eye on things, get the license plate numbers, but there's not much we can do about it."
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.