Gas stations in Ireland are losing millions as an increasing number of motorists drive away without paying for their fuel.

Since the recession began, drive-offs have been on the rise. RGDATA, a group that represents more than 4,000 family businesses, has said that such incidents were costing the stations millions of euro every year. Many garage owners have been forced to install pre-pay systems and other costly security measures to prevent the theft.

"We were one of the last places with a pump attendant, but I had to make him redundant in 2008. Even before that, the problem had been creeping up during the 'unmanned' hours," garage owner Robert Whyte told the Irish Independent.

"I'd always try to trace the people myself first, but during the summer there are a lot of rented cars," he said.

"I'd say that in 99.9pc of cases it was a genuine mistake, but when people habitually drive off without paying it becomes a problem. The gardai are helpful but I suppose at the end of the day they're not a debt collection service.”

After having to write off €2,500 in bad debts from drive-offs alone in an 18-month, Whyte eventually had to pay €15,000 to install a pre-pay system and an additional €5,000 to upgrade his security system.

"People can get frustrated having to pay in advance, but it's something we had to do. It's also saved me about one day a week going through CCTV coverage looking for the registration numbers of cars that had driven off."

Driving off without paying can be costly for the motorists as well if they get caught.  Michael Burns, 37, from Co Kerry, was heavily fined for the €10 worth of diesel he put in his car.

Burns denied stealing the diesel from Whyte's Centra Filling Station on the Killarney Road, Kenmare, on June 10, telling the court he had asked his partner to pay for the fuel but she had forgotten to do so. He had returned to the filling station the following day and several occasions since but never paid for the fuel because he thought his partner had already done so. Judge James O’Connor ordered him to pay €250 in compensation to the garage owner and a further €500 to the court poor box.

Said the judge: "The reality is that he went off out the road without paying and the bottom line is very simple: if you take someone else's property, you must pay for it.”