HEIDELBERG, Germany — Last week’s late-night robbery of the Campbell Barracks shoppette is one more reason why U.S. troops and military civilians in Germany will be using a gas ration card instead of coupons in the near future.

The robbery netted some $10,000 in cash and about $325,000 in gas coupons, said sources who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about the matter.

Although particularly blatant, the coupon heist is the latest example of an ongoing problem with the coupons, which for years have been an easy target for abuse.

Last year, 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, according to Lt. Col. David Konop, a spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.

As a result, “Esso was going to drop out” of the tax-free program, Konop said. If that had happened, he said, Americans would likely have had to pay the same price for gas that Germans pay.

“Because of how [gas coupons] have been handled in the past is one of the primary reasons USAREUR (U.S. Army Europe) and IMCOM (Installation Management Command) have been implementing the gas ration card,” Konop said.

The cards, which are now being tested at Mainz-Kastel and are scheduled to be issued in phases throughout Germany between July to November next year, would work like a debit card. People with vehicles registered through U.S. Army Europe or by their local military police would receive a personalized card and be able to add cash to it at any AAFES outlet or on the Web.

The computerized process also would limit the amount of fuel to be purchased based on current monthly rations.

In December 2006, when the plan to switch from the coupons to the cards was announced, officials said the change was coming because the German Federal Ministry of Finance requested it.

According to previous reports, the ministry asked USAREUR in 2000 to move away from coupons, which have over the years reportedly been stolen, counterfeited, borrowed, sold and otherwise mishandled.

Konop said Esso had planned to withdraw from the tax-free coupon program by the end of this year because hefty fines for accepting the coupons from unauthorized users meant it was no longer worthwhile for the company.

Work on the new ration cards had persuaded the company to extend providing the service, he said.

Konop said the Finance Ministry has not approved the ration card program yet but is expected to if all goes well with the testing of the new system.

He said the fines imposed by the Finance Ministry were determined by a formula that multiplied the hours a gas station was open by the number of unauthorized coupon users the ministry had observed over a certain time period during monitoring operations.

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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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