34 percent of area gas stations fail pump tests in last three years

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South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale)

When South Florida drivers buy gasoline, they trust they are getting what they pay for at the pump. But that’s not always the case.

Some gas pumps break down, shortchanging consumers. Others malfunction in ways that give costumers more than they pay for. And in some cases, experts and state regulators say gas pumps are deliberately altered.

In South Florida, 34 percent of the gas stations inspected in the past three years had at least one gas pump that failed accuracy tests used to determine if the devices are giving consumers the correct amount of gas they pay for, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel analysis found.

More often, pumps failed in ways that could benefit consumers. But almost as often, dispensers failed in ways that could cheat consumers — from a few cents per fill up to several dollars. With South Florida gas prices higher than the national average, even small sums add up. The average vehicle consumes 550 gallons of gasoline annually, U.S. Department of Transportation statistics show.

The Sun-Sentinel analyzed state inspection reports from 2004 to 2006. The analysis found 580 of more than 2,500 stations in South Florida had at least one pump dispensing more gas than customers paid to purchase, while 477 provided less fuel than they should.

“If you go to the grocery store and buy a gallon of milk, you expect a gallon of milk,” said Jason Toews, co-founder of Gasbuddy.com, a consumer advocacy site that tracks gas prices. “The same goes for gasoline.”

It’s unclear if Florida’s pump failure rate is higher or lower than in other states. In 2003, a national survey by the National Conference on Weights and Measures, found a 6 percent failure rate on gas dispensers tested in 2002. South Florida’s failure rate in recent years mirrors the nation.

Jim Smith, president of the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said most gas station owners don’t purposely shortchange consumers, but some members have reported others for cheating consumers. “We have a bad reputation as it is right now because of the gas prices,” Smith said. “You don’t want the consumer thinking they’ve been cheated every time they buy gas.”

State inspection records indicate at least 173 South Florida gas stations failed more than 10 tests within the past three years. Those with multiple failures included well-known industry names and independently owned stations alike. Most were in Miami-Dade County, which has more gas stations than Broward and Palm Beach counties. Stations with the highest number of repeat failures had pumps that could both shortchange and benefit consumers, state inspectors found. Among them:

– Old Dixie Texaco in Homestead topped the South Florida list, failing 68 maintenance tests — all but four for malfunctions that would shortchange consumers.

– Blue Heron Amoco/BP at 3691 W. Blue Heron Blvd. in Riviera Beach had the most failures in Palm Beach County, failing 38 tests — most for providing more gas than consumers would purchase, but also for shortchanging customers in five cases.

– Gas One at 4525 W. Atlantic Ave. in Delray Beach failed 37 tests — all but three for giving away more gas than customers would purchase.

Owners and managers of Old Dixie Texaco and Blue Heron Amoco declined comment. Bob Schonger, manager of Gas One, said large, busy stations tend to have more devices malfunction because they’re used more frequently than low-volume stations. “We give people a good price,” Schonger said. “If anything, we are giving away gas.”

– In Broward, West Oakland Park Mobil at 5998 W. Oakland Park Blvd. in Sunrise failed 28 tests — all but six for providing less gas than consumers would pay for. Moe Rahman, the station’s franchise owner, said the company has zero tolerance for equipment failure and problems are corrected soon after state inspectors note deficiencies.

– Tamarac Shell at 5001 N. State Road 7 in Tamarac failed 21 tests — all but four for malfunctions that would shortchange customers. Tamarac Shell representatives declined comment.

State regulations don’t require inspectors to issue fines for pump failures, even to repeat offenders. Officials say the priority is to fix problems.

“Mechanical devices break down over time and we have to take that into account,” said Matthew Curran, head of the state Bureau of Petroleum Inspection. “And that’s why we go back and check these facilities so we won’t over-penalize them.”

Devices that shortchange customers are taken out of service until they are fixed and reinspected. Pumps that err in consumers’ favor are not shut down.

“It is difficult to tell when a pump is cheating you,” said Judy Dugan, founder and research director for Oilwatchdog.org, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group based in Santa Monica, Calif. “But the key issue here is does anybody [gas station owners] ever pay a price for cheating?”

Steve Hadder, a field administrator with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Bureau of Petroleum Inspection, said inspections are unannounced and conducted on every Florida gas station at least every 12 to 18 months. Inspectors also perform undercover investigations of repeat offenders or as a result of consumer calls. A gas station found tampering with a seal to shortchange consumers could be charged with intent to defraud consumers, a misdemeanor, which state officials said is rare, Hadder said.

Only two stations have been fined for tampering with seals since 2005. Curran said Waters Texaco Food and Gas at 8145 West Waters Ave. in Tampa and J.C. Gas Station at 18700 NW Second Ave. in Miami were fined $5,000 and $10,000, respectively, after an investigation determined station personnel tampered with meter seals in 2005.

Many inspections are the result of consumer complaints. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services received 13,909 complaints about gas-stations from state residents from 2004 to 2006, a third of them from South Floridians.

Larry Grosser, 55, of West Palm Beach, filed a complaint with the state in 2005 after a pump at the Okeechobee Chevron at 6970 Okeechobee Blvd. showed it dispensed 22 gallons instead of 20 gallons — the maximum his vehicle holds. “I was waiting for the pump to stop but it kept going and going,” Grosser said.

An inspector tested the device at the West Palm Beach station the following day. The results indicated the pump had been charging for gas that consumers did not get, state records show. In Grosser’s case, the gas pump shortchanged him about 20 cents a gallon. Grosser said he got a $4 credit.

Last year, the same device failed inspection for providing more gas than consumers would pay for. Okeechobee Chevron representatives could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts by the Sun-Sentinel to seek a response.

Alexander Saas, 38, a network engineer who now lives in Indiana, said he noticed something odd when he finished filling his tank at ExxonMobil at 5600 Nob Hill Road in Tamarac. The gas pump indicated it dispensed 21 gallons to fill his Pathfinder’s tank, which he knows holds only 18 gallons.

“I always pay attention. That’s why I noticed,” said Saas, who reported the incident in Nov. 21, 2005.

A test on Dec. 1, 2005, showed the device was not accurate. Inspectors shut down the pump until it was fixed and reinspected. Consumers using the device before the inspection were shortchanged about 6 cents per gallon, state records show. The same pump passed its most recent inspection on April 10.

In 2005, an inspector failed a pump at DT Oil Station at 1910 NW Seventh St. in Miami because it was shortchanging drivers. The pump had no seal, records show. David Yanez, a Miami real estate agent, said he was outraged when he realized the pump charged him for gas he did not get.

“I got mad when I noticed the pump showed 21 gallons instead of 15 or 16 gallons,” Yanez said. “The pump cheated me about $10.”

State records show an inspector tested the device eight days later, finding the margin of error was over the state’s limits.

State officials said that if they suspect the seal was tampered with, an investigation is launched. But in DT Oil’s case no probe was ordered.

DT Oil representatives could not be reached for comment despite multiple efforts by the Sun-Sentinel to seek a response.

Although the station gave Yanez credit after the device was tested, the experience was an eye-opener.

“People have no idea,” said Yanez, 38. “They stop to fill their tanks and they keep driving.”

How to check if a gas pump is shortchanging you:

– Make sure the hose is in good condition. If you see one that is cracked or damaged, try to select another pump.

– Make sure the pump meter starts counting at “0.”

– Never leave a car unattended while pumping gas. If the nozzle system is not working properly, gas can overflow.

By the numbers:

– Florida has 52 inspectors, 11 of whom are assigned to South Florida.

– Florida has 199,336 gas pumps as of Sept. 21 — 47,665 are in South Florida.

– A total of 67,388 tests were performed on 50,664 pumps in South Florida gas stations from 2004 to 2006.

– 2004: 24,035 inspections performed on 18,883 gas pumps

– 2005: 20,779 inspections performed on 17,938 gas pumps

– 2006: 22,574 inspections performed on 13,843 gas pumps

Gas stations: Total of gas stations inspected

2004: 974
2005: 1017
2006: 857
Total: 2,848

Gas stations with at least one device failing the test:

2004: 378
2005: 343
2006: 262
Total: 983

Source: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bureau of Petroleum Inspection

How to act:

To file a complaint against a gas station, call the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bureau of Petroleum Inspection, at 800-435-7352 (HELP-FLA) or go to: www.doacs.state.fl.us/standard/petro/index.html. Make sure you record the type of gas, the pump number and the station’s name and address.

More online:

– For a list of South Florida gas stations that have repeatedly failed state checks, a searchable database that shows all inspections and a video report, go to: www.Sun-Sentinel.com/gaspumps

– For gas-saving tips and to check local gas prices, go to: www.Sun-Sentinel.com/helpteam

– To check gas prices go to: www.gasbuddy.com

Staff researchers Barbara Hijek and Bill Lucey contributed to this report. Mc Nelly Torres can be reached at mntor[email protected] or 954-356-4208 or 561-243-6600, ext. 4208.

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