Wallets get boost from misused gas coupons
By KENDRA HELMER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 7, 2004
NAPLES, Italy — Drivers who fuel up at gasoline stations in the Naples area sometimes roll away with pumped-up wallets, despite rising fuel costs.
By illegally selling and trading discount gas coupons for goods and services, some sailors and Defense Department civilians say they can double what they pay for the coupons.
The difficulty in tracking down those abusing the gas coupon system make it impossible to determine the extent of the misuse, officials say.
But it is enough of an issue that the base uses the base newspaper, newcomer orientation classes and ads on American Forces Network to regularly warn personnel about penalties for misusing their coupons.
“To deter it is a problem,” said the base commander, Capt. Dave Frederick. “But what to do [for punishment] is not a problem.”
Frederick said that the misuse does occur, and said he has revoked people’s privileges for it.
Frederick has personally seen misuse. He said that once while he was jogging past a gas station not authorized to take coupons, he saw a woman with military plates fueling up. When he saw her pay with coupons, he got her license plate number, called her sponsor and revoked her privileges.
Selling the coupons for a profit is easy to do, according to people interviewed by Stars and Stripes.
In fact, some gas stations in this southern Italian city are known for their aggressive attendants who eagerly inquire, “Sell coupons?” when they spot an American at the pump.
Their eagerness is fueled by the fact that eligible U.S. and NATO personnel do not pay tax on gas. The coupons cost about 52 cents a liter, while Italians pay about 1.20 euros (about $1.45) a liter for gas.
“It’s a very sensitive program indeed because ... we have an enormous savings made by personnel,” said Bart DiMuccio, tax-free office administrator at the Capodichino base in Naples, which oversees the coupon program for U.S. and NATO commands in all of Italy, including Sardinia and Sicily.
From October 2003 to September 2004, coupons for 98.5 million liters were printed. Military personnel save up to $90 million a year with the program, he said.
“We have an excellent relationship with the Italian ministries of defense and finance ...” DiMuccio said. “We must make sure this program is crystal clear, we must make sure everything is done by the book.”
A driver is supposed to use the coupons at Agip and Esso gas stations, filling in the signature, date and license plate in front of the attendant.
“The gas station attendant should ask for ID,” DiMuccio said.
But of more than 20 people interviewed, including several who have lived in Naples for years, none had ever been asked for identification, and several admitted to leaving the coupons blank.
And while some say the risk isn’t worth it, others readily admit to making a profit off their coupons.
Many steered clear of talking about such misuse — and not just because they risk losing their privileges.
“Don’t do a story,” several grumbled, expressing fear that officials may try to crack down on what they see as a way to supplement their income.
Rather than haggle with unknown attendants who drive a hard bargain, several personnel looking to sell coupons say they just go to Italians they know and trust. None of the sellers would agree to be identified for fear of punishment.
Some say they get 85 euro cents per liter, while others get as high as 1 euro per liter, a profit of 68 U.S. cents per liter.
Getting euros for the coupons isn’t the only way people cash in. Some off-base mechanics, eager to save money on gasoline, offer their services in exchange for coupons.
One petty officer said repairs to his car were going to cost 400 euros (about $480), so he gave the mechanic 400 liters of gas coupons, for which he had paid $208. The sailor saved $272.
One government worker said he sells his leftover coupons for 1 euro per liter.
“I know I’m not supposed to do it, but if you’re allowing me 400 liters and I don’t use it, shouldn’t I be entitled to do what I choose to do with it?” the worker said. “Once it’s mine, whose business is it?
“There is a fine line between being illegal and being business.”
Several sources said they weren’t worried about getting caught.
“There is no way to trace it,” one man said.
That’s not true, DiMuccio said.
Each coupon’s serial number can be traced to the purchaser. If misuse is suspected, his office calls the person.
Personnel also are encouraged to alert the office of suspected abuse of the system.
“If there’s any suspicion that some Agip or Esso gas station is doing anything wrong, we will immediately call the contractor,” DiMuccio said.
Personnel don’t stake out gas stations to catch people in the act. Rather, DiMuccio said the office, which employs five people, randomly samples as much as 80 percent of coupons to see if they are correctly filled out.
Another red flag of possible misuse would be if someone turns into a gas station a 100-liter book of coupons in one day.
The tax-free office receives the coupons from the central Agip and Esso offices in Rome, where all gas stations send their coupons after stamping them. The tax-free workers check to see if the coupons have been filled out by the owner and stamped by the gas station.
The office also calls people if their coupons aren’t filled out “to make sure nothing is illegal,” DiMuccio said.
While several coupon users said they never fill them out, DiMuccio said, “A very high percentage sign them.”
DiMuccio said of 41,928 gas coupons his office recently checked, about 15 coupons weren’t signed and about 10 had no license number.
If there is a suspicious case, the tax-free office sends that information to the appropriate authorities, such as the person’s chain of command, DiMuccio said.
Sometimes the command asks his office to investigate further, which may involve looking at an individual’s coupon use over the past year.
In the past year, the office has investigated four suspicious cases, and in an average year may investigate anywhere from a half-dozen to 12 people.
“We have not had big problems of misuse,” DiMuccio said.