OPINION

Hard times at the gas pump

The economic crisis is pushing many gas station owners to operate at the limits of legality and many others to break those limits. Incidents of theft at the pumps and charges of tax evasion are increasing by the day.

One might say that the social turmoil is good for profiteers. But the crisis is also the reason that many of those who cheat are risking the rage of citizens and their own colleagues. It is obvious that in this sector too our society is at the limits of what it can tolerate.

For gas station owners, the situation is critical. Already, out of a total of about 7,500 stations, some 1,000 shut down this year. Another 1,000 are expected to close in 2011. The high price of oil internationally, along with Greeks? reduced incomes, has resulted in a 12 percent drop in consumption. At the same time, of the 1.6 euros per liter of gasoline, 1 euro goes to the tax department and has to be paid in advance. Greece has the highest price for retail gasoline in Europe. (Before taxes, it is one of the highest prices, though not the highest.) Gas station running costs have also increased.

In short, consumption is down whereas the gas stations? operational costs are up. Because of the crisis, raising fuel prices is not an option. The result is an increase in motives for theft and tax evasion.

For every stolen liter, the thief pockets the 1 euro that should go to the tax department – a profit that he would have to sell many liters of legal gasoline to match. That is why market observers believe that the majority of gas station owners have given in to the temptation of installing electronic devices at the pumps in order to cheat customers and evade detection by the authorities.

But the same crisis that encourages criminality is also the reason that many cheats will be uncovered.

The Greeks are changing: They are no longer prepared to pay exorbitant prices for everything and to be cheated as well. Need and anger have made them more demanding: They demand better services at lower prices; they demand the state?s protection. And enforcing the law is the only way to force those who have no conscience to acquire one. It is also the only way to prevent people from taking the law into their own hands when they have had enough of seeing others cheat them with impunity.