Is Your Gas Station Ripping You Off?

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?

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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.

Gas Scams

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.

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