Meet Joseph Wood and William Bell. They ensure that you aren't being ripped off at the gas station.
Ever fill up your tank and the pump reads out more gallons than you thought you needed? How about pulling into the station and the price you end up paying is a lot more than what was advertised on the side of the road? Or have you ever questioned the quality of the gas you just put in your car?
Wood, Bell and thousands of other inspectors across the country are here to help. They go from station to station, checking to see if the pumps are working, the gas is the right quality and that prices are advertised properly.
They are supposed to make sure that, when you pay for 10 gallons of gas, you actually get 10 gallons of gas. And with fuel at record-high prices, the job that these little-noticed bureaucrats do takes on a new level of importance.
Wood and Bell work for the department of weights and measures. They and five other inspectors are responsible for the accuracy of pumps at 570 gas stations in Suffolk County, at the eastern end of New York's Long Island. (They also inspect the scales at grocery stores, delis, and butcher shops, as well as the meters on home heating oil trucks.)
At each station, they look at the prices, take samples of each grade of gasoline, looking for contaminants, and take five gallons of gas from each pump, checking to see if it is calibrated properly.
"If it's more than a couple teaspoons off, we order the pump repaired," said Charles A. Gardner, the director of Suffolk County's weights and measures consumer affairs division, who oversees the inspection program for the county.
Every station in New York has to be inspected at least once a year. But the inspection team also responds to customer complaints.
Every state has slightly different rules for its inspections. But most post a sticker on the pumps showing the month and date they were last inspected. It's the first thing customers should look for before filling up.
The inspection team finds problems with about 15 percent of the pumps checked. About half are giving out too much gas; the other half, too little. Most are just pumps that aren't properly maintained. But every once in a while, somebody tries to scam the consumer.
In May, one Suffolk Country station advertised a price but failed to disclose that it was for cash only. Customers who pulled in expecting one price were charged more when they chose to pay with a credit card. Gardner's staff discovered the violation after a motorist tipped them off.
At another station, the inspectors found the pumps charging four cents a gallon more than the price advertised on the sign above the pump.
"Imagine if there were no inspectors. It would be that much more chaotic and confusing to the consumer," Gardner said.
But that's nothing compared to what the inspection team found in February. A laboratory test of gasoline taken from a local station as part of its annual inspection, showed that the 93 octane gas turned out to be 89 octane. Gardner said that maybe the station was scamming customers or maybe the gas supplier was scamming both the station and the customers. Either way, customers weren't getting what they were paying for.
Clerks at some full-service stations may pull another popular scam. A customer will ask for $20 of gas, but the attendant will only pump $17, hoping that the driver never looks at the pump. They then pocket the extra $3.
Most violations get resolved through a civil settlement with Gardner's office. But sometimes -- either for repeat offenders, or those who have blatantly egregious violations -- criminal charges are brought.
For instance, three stations in Suffolk County with the wrong octane in 2006 were each fined $3,000 but were not criminally charged.
The worst case of a gas station ripping off drivers that Gardner saw came in the 1990s.
A gas station owner had opened up his old manual pumps, put black electrical tape over the numbers and then renumbered the pumps, charging customers more for less gas. For every 10 gallons they paid for, drivers were only getting 8.5 gallons.
At today's prices, such a scam would take a major hit on any driver's wallet. Somebody filling up with 15 gallons of gas would pay an extra $9 for gas they never received at each fill-up.
Another scam, which Gardner and his team caught, using hidden cameras after a complaint, involved drivers requesting regular gasoline and then the attendant filling up the car with the more expensive grade gas. The customer got the higher octane gas, even though they didn't need it. Stations typically have a higher profit margin on the more expensive gas.
Problems at the Pump
At a recent Hess station on the side of the highway, Wood and Bell methodically went from pump to pump, taking samples of gas. In total: 38 pumps, five gallons tested at each. (They pour the gas back into the station's holding tanks at the end of the inspection.)
Most of the pumps worked fine. But there were a few problems.
At one pump, Bell was done dispensing gas. Yet, the numbers slowly crept up from 4.999 gallons to 5.020 gallons.
"It's gone up 8 cents while we're talking," Bell said.
That's not much, but it's still 8 cents the customer is paying while not getting any gas. Multiply that by a few thousand drivers a day, and that's hundreds of dollars being wasted.
And consumers are noticing. The Suffolk County inspectors used to get about 10 complaints about various gas stations each month. Now, 20 to 25 calls are coming in. It's not that there are more problems with stations. It's just that, with sky-high prices, drivers are noticing the slightest irregularity.
At another pump, the LED display lights weren't working properly and it was hard to tell the exact price of a fill-up.
And the problems didn't end there. All modern gas pumps have an automatic shut-off function. When a tank is full, they stop dispensing gas. On one pump, that function wasn't working. Bell put a big red sticker on the pump: "Condemned." The station owner was ordered to fix the three pumps immediately.
While inspections might cost an owner to make repairs, Gardner said they still want their stations checked.
"Most of them want it done because it's a way to ensure that they aren't giving gas away," he said.
Avoid Being Ripped Off
There are several little steps that drivers can take to avoid gas scams or faulty pumps. Here are some suggestions from the Suffolk County office of consumer affairs.
Park your vehicle so that you can see the pump -- If you are asked to "Pull Up," check the pump first or get out and look at the numbers displayed on the pump.
Make sure that the numbers for gallons and sale are at zero before either you or an attendant starts pumping gas.
Make sure that the price per gallon on the pump matches the posted signs for the grade of gas you are buying.
Self Serve? Full Serve? Cash? Credit? Discount? Make sure you are paying the advertised price for the grade, service and method of payment that you select.
Make sure that the price you pay matches the total sale price on the pump at the end of your sale.
Want to quickly check if the pump is computing correctly? Stop the pump at 10 gallons -- It's easy to multiply the posted price by 10 and compare the displayed sale.
If paying by credit card: check the total sale amount you are charged before you leave the station and save your receipt for comparison with your monthly statement.
If you think you have been ripped off, contact your state or local consumer affairs or weights and measures office. In some western states, gas inspections are done by the state department of agriculture.