The number of motorists driving off without paying for fuel has rocketed in the last three months as forecourt prices rise on a near-daily basis.
Petrol and diesel prices have soared to record levels over recent weeks, adding to the general spike in the cost of living.
Petrol is now more than £1.63 per litre on average and diesel more than £1.73 as supply shortages and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine unsettle the market and push up wholesale prices.
As a result, fuel retailers are reporting a sharp rise in “drive-off” thefts, which have increased by 215% since December 2021.
There are an estimated 1.7m cases of drivers failing to pay for fuel - also known as bilking - every year. In 2019 such crimes cost the industry £88 million but the body which monitors offences predicts that this could reach £100m this year if current trends continue.
Claire Nichol, managing director of the British Oil Security Syndicate (Boss), which works to tackle such crimes, said after a drop linked to lockdown incidents were returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Figures released by Boss for late 2021 showed there had been a decline in the number of “drive-offs” but that the value of the crimes had increased as fuel prices rose. Since then, the number of offences as well as the value has risen as prices have rocketed at forecourts.
However, Ms Nichol said the quantities being taken in individual incidents had actually fallen, suggesting drivers were trying not to draw attention to themselves.
She told the Telegraph: "Record fuel prices make not paying for fuel more attractive to criminals, and early reports indicate forecourt fuel crime has jumped in recent weeks.
"Reported incidents of unpaid fuel are 215 percent higher when comparing the number of incidents reported during the first week in March 2022 with reports during the first week in December."
She added: "In 2019, Boss estimated that unpaid fuel cost UK forecourt operators £88 million per annum. Lockdowns saw incidents see-saw, but since the economy reopened forecourt fuel crime has begun to move back to pre-pandemic levels.
"If the current trend continues, we expect to see losses from forecourt fuel crime soaring above £100 million per annum."
The soaring cost of fuel has seen calls for the Government to cut VAT to ease pressure on drivers.
Petrol is now 15p per litre more than it was at the start of the year and 38p more than in March 2021. Diesel is 12p per litre more than in January and 44p more than a year ago. The gap between petrol and diesel has also widened from 3ppl last March to 9ppl now.
The RAC has urged Chancellor Rishi Sunak to temporarily cut VAT on fuel from 20% to 15%.
Its fuel spokesman, Simon Williams, said: “It doesn’t seem fair that the Government’s coffers should benefit from the hike in the oil price while drivers suffer. Currently, around 26p a litre is going to the Treasury from VAT alone, so a cut to 15% would only take the tax take back to around 20p a litre which was broadly what was collected over the last three years.”