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Area Gas Pump Survey Shows No Tampering

Fuel: A check on whether customers get what they pay for finds they actually get a little more, not less. That's not the case in every county.

October 23, 1998|COLL METCALFE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Topping off the tank of her new minivan, Kathleen Banks didn't realize that she was getting a little more than she paid for. About a nickel more, in fact.

Though the pump meter at a Shell station on Moorpark Road in Thousand Oaks read 7.2 gallons, she actually got about 7.24 gallons. It wasn't like hitting the lottery, but she had no complaints about getting something for nothing.

"Can't complain about that, even if it adds up to just about nothing," the 35-year-old Thousand Oaks woman said after being told of her minor windfall. "You can never really tell with these things."

Earlier this month, four Los Angeles area men were arrested in connection with a scheme that bilked gasoline consumers in four counties out of about $1 million. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said that with each customer being charged about $1 more than he actually got in gas, there were thousands of victims.

Garcetti said it's likely that similar schemes are occurring "throughout the country."

But a Times sample of 15 stations around Ventura County found no evidence of tampering. Customers at surveyed stations were generally getting what they paid for, while some stations, such as the Thousand Oaks Shell, gave away a little gas.

To do the survey, The Times used a specially calibrated seraphim, a tin measuring device resembling a vase. The seraphim was loaned by the county's Department of Weights and Measures and certified by the state. At each station, one gallon of premium-grade gas was tested to see if the pump passed state standards for accuracy.

Eight of the stations included in the survey sold exactly one gallon of gasoline for the price quoted on the sign out front. It also matched the reading on the pump's volume meter.

Of the remaining seven, four sold a bit less than a gallon and three sold just a bit more than a gallon.

But the amounts above and below are considered negligible by the state, amounting to less than 1/254th of a gallon for each gallon pumped.

Any reading 1.5 cubic inches above or below the gallon reading on the seraphim is allowable. Anything below that threshold will cause inspectors to close the pump until it is repaired. But because there is no law prohibiting people from giving gas away, stations are simply notified about a pump that dispenses more.

"In all my years here we've never found anything out of the ordinary," said Weights and Measures Director Dan Riley. "One [pump] out of maybe 100 is off and that's usually giving away gas."

While errors don't add up to much for the individual customer, they can add up for gas stations over time.

"It may not seem like a lot, and it's not, but after 1,000 customers or so, it starts to add up," said Bob Vodka, an inspector for the county Weights and Measures Department.

The only station tested that fell outside the allowable error was an Exxon station on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, where the number 16 pump gave consumers 2.5 cubic inches more gasoline per gallon.

A station attendant, who asked that his name not be used, said he was surprised and promised to notify the owner.

Although many people may not think about whether they are being cheated at the pump, Saul Montero said he doesn't care what surveys show, he will always be skeptical of the honesty of gas station owners.

"Who knows what these guys are doing," he said while filling up at a Ventura gas station. "Maybe they're putting water in their tanks, maybe they're giving us regular when we want the super. . . .If they want to get you, they're going to get you."

In the Los Angeles case, for instance, the computer chips in 140 gas pump meters had been altered at 12 stations in Los Angeles, Orange, Kern and San Bernardino counties.

"I'm never sure that when I buy a gallon I'm getting a gallon," said Geralyn Fenwick of Ventura. "You've got to be pretty careful. . . . You know it's buyer beware."

Vodka said consumers here have far less to fear than in some places.

"They're pretty good here," he said. "With gas pumps there isn't the kind of problems people have seen in L.A. or Riverside. But we're still out checking them and we respond to every consumer complaint to make sure we're not missing anything."

Compared to Los Angeles County and its 56,000 gas pumps--more than a quarter of the pumps in California--Ventura County has just 4,600 pumps at 215 stations. That makes an inspector's job much easier.

Each pump is tested at least once a year, some more often if inspectors receive complaints from customers, officials said.

But, inspectors said it's important for the customer to be skeptical and watch the pumps for anything that appears unusual.

For one thing, if the pump handle jumps the moment the gasoline starts to flow, there might be a problem. Also, if the meter ticking off the dollars and cents jumps erratically, consumers should be concerned.

And if the car runs badly after filling up, there might be a problem with the gas.

In addition, inspectors suggest that consumers do their math and calculate the amount of money they are being asked to pay against the amount of gasoline they have pumped.

And always make sure that the price advertised on the street matches the price on the pump. If there is a discrepancy, the advertised price is the one that should be paid.

"These are things that we like to see reported and we certainly encourage it," Riley said. "The people are at the stations every day and they'll know when something isn't right."

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