Last week, I posted a chart to Reddit looking at the history of Google reviews at the Shell Gas Station at 285 Hegenberger Ave., just outside Oakland International Airport (OAK). As recently as 2021, it was a perfectly normal gas station. When people left negative reviews they complained about typical things like the car wash not working or the clerk being rude. But by 2023, that had all changed. The number of reviews exploded and every single one of them was about being robbed while pumping gas. And to clarify, these were not reviews complaining about high gas prices. These were people who had their windows smashed and bags stolen while they were pumping gas or paying their bill. I suggested it might be the most dangerous gas station in America.
As the post took off on r/dataisbeautiful, a number of Redditors chimed in to share their stories of being robbed at this Shell station or point to other businesses by Oakland International Airport that are also plagued by constant robberies. (Note: the original chart was removed from r/dataisbeautiful after a week for unknown reasons, but was the most upvoted post of the year as of Jan. 17. See note at end of article.)
The San Francisco Standard wrote a piece confirming what I had found in Google review data and declared the area near Oakland International Airport a “Thieves Paradise.” SF Gate sent a reporter to investigate and found a similar pattern as well.
At PerfectRec, I spend a lot of time scraping and analyzing large sets of user reviews in order to help inform our product recommendations and see what we can learn about customer satisfaction trends. Here’s a piece we published debunking Apple’s implausible customer satisfaction claims, and another looking at how consumers reacted to the iPhone 15 Pro compared to earlier premium iPhones.
The reviews for the Shell station at 285 Hegenberger Road was the most wild pattern of user reviews I’ve ever seen and I was particularly interested in it since OAK is the closest airport to my home. So I decided to use the same scraping and sentiment analysis techniques we use for consumer electronics and retailers to dig in a bit deeper and follow up on some of the comments Redditors left on my initial chart. My main question: was this Shell station just a particularly egregious example of a general problem in Oakland, or was there something going on in this area?
I scraped the last five years of user reviews for the eight gas stations closest to Oakland International Airport and performed basic sentiment and topic analysis on them. The map below shows the location of all eight stations and the breakdown of their 2023 Google reviews by topic and sentiment.
At the four gas stations closest to the airport, most of the reviews left in 2023 were about being robbed while pumping gas. This includes both reviews with comments and those without. On the other side of the highway, almost none of the reviews mention being robbed. Based on Google reviews, there seems to be a concentrated area of crime targeting tourists located between Oakland International Airport and Interstate 880. This is precisely the place where tourists returning rental cars would most likely stop to refuel.
There were several commenters on Reddit who claimed this had always been a dangerous neighborhood. And while that might well be the case, the reports of robberies at gas stations in the area only appeared on Google Maps starting in 2021. As recently as 2020, you could even find reviews recommending several of the stations in this area as good places to get gas before returning a rental car at OAK.
Here are two of these reviews from the Chevron Station at 191 98th Ave.
Good place to put gas especially if you are on your way [to] Oakland International Airport and need gas in your rental.
Convenient if you are returning a rental car
Today, the user reviews from the same Chevron station tell a very different story.
I stopped here on 10/15/22 for literally five minutes to top off my gas before returning my rental. A car drove up with tinted windows, someone got out of the car crawled into my backseat and took my purse. There has been over 230 thefts at this gas station since the end of June. Nothing is being done about it so I’m sure the Chevron is in on these crimes. BEWARE! Do not stop here for gas or for coffee at Starbucks. I was also told by the Oakland police crime is out of control in this area. I won’t be flying in the Oakland airport anymore.
DO NOT GO HERE! I was another victim of theft while pumping gas. My purse and laptop bag were taken right in front of me from the passenger seat. The employees were not shocked and seemed actually amused. I stopped here to fill up before returning my rental car. It was [the[ middle of the day and full of people. It is not safe. DO NOT GO HERE! Like another reviewer states, who read reviews on gas stations? I hope someone here does and will avoid this happening to them. Every person at the airport knew exactly which gas station this happened at.
The chart below shows the breakdown and sentiment of all user reviews with comments for the four gas stations between I-880 and the airport.
There is a lot of negative selection bias in Google reviews for gas stations. Very few people are motivated to leave a positive review for something as mundane as pumping gas. So the reviews that do show up tend to be when something goes wrong: the bathroom was dirty, the pump didn’t work, or around the Oakland International Airport, “I was robbed.”
The 76 Station at 449 Hegenberger Ave stands out for having an unusually large number of positive reviews. In fact, it accounted for 84% of all positive reviews left for the four gas stations between the highway and the airport over the last five years.
Simply being over represented in positive reviews isn’t itself evidence of fake reviews. However, there are some more signs that the management might be trying to manipulate their reputation by posting fake reviews. This station has received 113 Google reviews with comments over the past five years. That works out to about two reviews a month. However, in a four hour period the night of September 6, 2023 this station received five new positive reviews, all of which talked about improved safety and four of which mentioned the new management.
Both the sudden burst of entirely positive reviews and the extremely similar talking points suggests they are likely fake.
"ever since there’s been new management/owners, this place has been very safe. they always look out for their customers and making sure everyone is good, safe, and secure. the prices are also very good and valid. their customer service is amazing and honestly i’d say that this place has really improved. will definitely be coming back here every time to fill up my tank!"
"Great people! Always see at least one person standing outside to keep an eye on the theft. All the other gas stations always have broken cars and thefts driven in and out."
"The place has improved a lot over the year I feel safe and don’t have to worry about anything also very clean environment"
"great customer service. new owners take customer’s safety serious and ensure customer satisfaction!"
"New management Great customer service they watch over your car well you're filling up the gas"
There were a number of commenters on my initial post suggesting that the negative reviews might have been a result of review bombing. This seems extremely unlikely to me for a following reasons:
Unlike the likely fake positive reviews mentioned above, the negative reviews for these gas stations that mention being robbed are spread out over time. They mostly started to appear towards the end of 2022 and have continued throughout 2023.
Many of the reviews that mention being robbed include photos of the car at the gas station with broken windows. That would be a lot of effort for a review bomber.
The reviews mentioning robbery are at multiple gas stations. Typically incidents of review bombing target a single business or product, not four different businesses in the same neighborhood.
I started this post by asking the question: Was the Shell station I thought may be the most dangerous gas station in America simply an egregious example of a general problem in Oakland, or was there something else going on around Oakland International Airport?
The answer to the first part seems to be no. The Shell station at 285 Hegenberger Ave. is not just a normal gas station in a rough neighborhood. There are other gas stations just a mile down the same street on the other side of the highway in poor neighborhoods where 100% of their user reviews in 2023 weren’t about being robbed.
The answer to the second part of the question is yes, something is going on around OAK. While the Shell station at 285 Hegenberger Ave. is extraordinary in the number and uniformity of user reviews mentioning robbery, it was not a total outlier. Three other gas stations in the area between Oakland International Airport and I-880 show a similar pattern of brazen, daytime auto robberies largely targeting tourists.
Usually it doesn’t make sense to take the pre-paid gas upsell that rental car companies try to sell you. But if you’re returning a rental to Oakland International Airport, I’d probably make an exception.
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Here's a screenshot of the original post on r/dataisbeautiful. It was taken off the subreddit for some reason after a week, we aren't sure why. It now says it's "pending approval." If you're a mod, please let me know what I did wrong. I love the sub and didn't intend to break any rules! You can reach me at email@example.com
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