Cheating Fuel Pumps to Pay High Penalty

DALLAS -- The minimum fine for retailers accused of cheating drivers with inaccurate fuel pumps will be quadrupled in the state of Texas, starting today, The Associated Press reported.

"Gas prices are high enough without consumers being shortchanged at the pump," Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples told the AP. "Drivers need to have every confidence they are receiving exactly what they pay for every time they fill up." Staples noted that Texas fuel vendors already have a 96-percent compliance rate with other standards.

Stations more than twice in excess of the tolerance will be fined $100 per pump for the first offense -- up from $25 -- and $200 per pump for the second time around. The pump will be closed until the machine is recalibrated and recertified by the state. This is the first penalty increase since 1996.

With gas prices at record highs, drivers are more focused on their gas spending, and especially sensitive to frauds such as inaccurate pumps.
Consumer complaints about that issue saw an increase of 109 percent from fiscal year 2004 to 2006, David Kostroun, the Agriculture Department's assistant commissioner for regulatory programs, told the AP.

Inspectors found 7,400 violations in fiscal year 2006, and 3,400 pumps have been flagged from September until now, the department said.

In Texas, average retail gasoline prices are breaking records with each passing day, the AAA Texas survey of regular-grade gasoline reported.

Wednesday saw a record $3.09 per gallon, up 14 cents from last week's average of $2.95. The record before this week was $2.96, after Hurricane Katrina.

Jason Toews, co-founder of the Web site, a consumer advocacy site that tracks gas prices, said the site has received a number of complaints about inaccurate pumps. "It may not be that there's more of that there's more of that going on right now, but people are paying more attention because of the high gas prices," he told the AP.

The state Agriculture Department has 72 weights and measures inspectors monitoring 275,000 fuel pumps at 14,000 gas stations. State laws mandates that the pumps be inspected at least once every four years, but the department must respond to consumer complaints within 10 days. The department allows a difference of 6 cubic inches -- about 6 tablespoons -- per five gallons of gas.

Chris Newton, president of the Texas Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said he hopes the penalties will discourage retailers from cheating. "For us, it not only needs to be fair to the consumer, but it also has to be fair to the other retailers who are often competing on opposite sides of a corner," he told the AP, adding that the group is aiming for "the same measurement standards across the board."