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HEIDELBERG, Germany — U.S. Army Europe and German authorities launched 60 investigations in the past six months into the suspected misuse by American holders of Army and Air Force Exchange Service gas debit cards.

The investigations, conducted by the USAREUR Provost Marshal’s office, U.S. Forces Customs-Europe, German police and German customs officials, are probing the “improper transfer of fuel rations to unauthorized individuals,” USAREUR spokesman Mark Ray said this week.

So far, 19 people have been subjected to nonjudicial punishment or administrative measures, Ray said. Of the other suspected cases, 24 were deemed unfounded, and 17 are still being investigated, he said.

The misuse can occur in various ways: using a card to put gas in someone else’s car; exchanging fuel for money; and exchanging fuel rations for car repairs or other types of services.

The cards slowly replaced coupon books in recent years in an effort to cut down on misuse of the system, which provides Americans with gas at considerably lower prices than German motorists, whose fuel usage is heavily taxed.

“The fuel card system significantly reduces the potential for abuse; however, people who are determined to cheat and abuse the system will (nearly) always find a way to do so,” Ray said.

The 60 investigations are more than typically initiated under the old fuel coupon program, Ray said.

“The numbers of investigations have increased, but there are significantly less instances of abuse and misuse compared to the fuel coupon program,” Ray wrote in an e-mail.

He said that’s because the card makes it easier, providing “real-time” information and data flow to a centralized data base.

But other officials, who have been briefed on the matter but declined to be identified because they were not authorize to discuss it, said that there was concern that a particular type of abuse involving the card had become more widespread than initially thought.

In these cases, card holders who have not used their entire monthly allotment are colluding with gas station personnel to charge the card without pumping any gas. The unpumped gas is then resold at full price, and the gas station personnel and card holder share the profit.

The monthly allotment — typically 400 liters — is based on the engine size of the car.

The coupons were phased out after a decade of planning and negotiations, and at the behest of the German Federal Ministry of Finance, which said that the coupons were being stolen, counterfeited, borrowed, sold and otherwise mishandled, depriving the German government of tax revenue.

In 2006 for example, Esso paid fines totaling some 800,000 euros — more than $1 million at today’s exchange rate — to the German government for accepting coupons from unauthorized users, Lt. Col. David Konop, then AAFES spokesman, said in 2007.

Esso was about to drop out of the program, he said, and only continued because the cards were being initiated.

The situation is different in Italy. U.S. personnel still use coupons to get buy gas at Italian service stations at U.S. prices.

But in the past five years or so, there have been no investigations for misuse, and officials say everyone is content with the system.

“I’m very confident with our coupon system,” said Bart DiMuccio, administrator of the Tax-Free Office in Naples, which runs the gas coupon program in Italy. “We’ve never had problems with the gas companies, and we’ve never had problems with the government.”

DiMuccio said he routinely upgrades the coupons’ security features. This month, for example, a thermal-ink symbol was added to make counterfeiting much more difficult.

“It’s the duty of [the gas station clerk] to rub the symbol and see if it disappears (and re-appears),’ DiMuccio said. “When I showed it to the Italian government, you should have seen their faces. They are very happy.”

Further, he said, several years ago he updated his data base to check for problems with the coupons, all returned to his office within a month of being used — duplicates, missing signatures, whether the license plate number on the coupon matches the one on the booklet. “If a license plate, signature or date is missing, it’s flagged and we’d contact the member.”

Investigations are only done if someone reports the coupons stolen; then the numbers on the coupons are flagged.

montgomeryn@estripes.osd.mil

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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