Canny cops are re-using old police vehicles on the front line in the fight against crime - with remarkable results.

They are using a worn-out police van to deter thieves who fill up at petrol stations and drive away without paying.

The van, which looks like an active service police vehicle, is parked on the garage forecourt, where it acts as a visual deterrent.

Although it is empty and the nearest police officer could be miles away, the garage owners say the number of thieves has fallen dramatically.

Police chiefs in North Yorkshire put the phoney patrol vehicle into action after calls for action over thieves stealing fuel.

A spokesman said: "These days, a full tank of petrol can easily add up to £60 or £70 each fill-up. No business can afford to lose that kind of money on a very regular basis."

Until now, police have had to track thieves via grainy closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage or number plate details.

But the spokesman said: "Although garages employ CCTV cameras, the kind of motorist who will drive away without paying is likely to be driving a car that doesn't belong to them or isn't registered."

There seemed to be no answer to the problem until an officer came up with the idea of a police vehicle being used as a visual deterrent. So the police-less vehicle has been stationed at key hotspots to scare away villains.

The spokesman added: "The clear message to thieves is that if they attempt to escape without paying, a police vehicle could be on their tail in no time."

And the idea has proven such a hit that more old police vehicles could be put to good use.

"This is such a great idea, however, that we will look at doing it again if circumstances allow," said the spokesman.

This is not the first time a North-East police force has used bogus police officer to deter law-breakers. A few years ago, Northumbria used cardboard police officers in department stores and plastic patrol cars on busy roads to stop speeders.