DURHAM’S chief constable has unveiled plans to identify those filling stations not doing enough to tackle fuel theft - by parking an unused patrol car nearby.

The police vehicle will carry a large sign warning: “Criminals are stealing from this garage. You are paying for their fuel.”

Mike Barton said: “I accept it is a bit eye-catching and that it’s a bit controversial, but it is a product of me being fed up that some people are not pulling their weight to tackle the problem of thefts of fuel from forecourts.”

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The chief constable was speaking as it was revealed there had been more than 50 instances of people making off with fuel without paying - known as bilking - between April and June, in County Durham and Darlington.

He said said more garages should be introducing pre-payment for fuel or taking other measures, such as installing CCTV.

Mr Barton said: “It is very expensive to fill your car up now, so I can see there is an obvious temptation for people to pinch fuel.

“Some garage forecourts are more problematic than others, where they get more fuel theft.

“If those garages are not taking reasonable precautions then I think it is legitimate that I park an unused police car outside that forecourt informing members of the public that they are subsidising that theft.

“Because the company will get it back - and they will get it back from the law abiding public who pay for fuel.”

He added: “We are sending officers to reports of bilking, where sometimes the staff who should be there to show us the CCTV footage have gone home and we have to keep going back, when people are having their houses burgled.

“Another problem with bilking is people drive off at speed – putting other people’s lives at risk.”

Mr Barton said in countries such as Spain and the US customers have to pay first to get fuel.

He said: “There are 24-hour filling stations here that are unmanned at night and they will go for pre-payment -so they have the technology and can do it.

“Now I am not saying that every petrol filling station should do this because they don’t need to, but if you have a problem with theft then I think you should go for pre-payment.”