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BEING RIPPED OFF AT THE PUMP YOU MIGHT PAY FOR MORE GAS THAN YOU GET.

Byline: TROY ANDERSON Staff Writer

The number of gas stations cited for overcharging motorists has soared nearly 500 percent over last year, and an industry executive said the scope of consumer fraud at the pump is even worse.

Inspectors for the Los Angeles County Department of Weights and Measures issued nine citations with penalties totaling $3,600 in 2004-05, but 50 totaling $22,650 in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

``We are taking more of an aggressive approach,'' said Jeff Humphreys, the department's deputy director. ``We just simply directed staff to use the penalty process more aggressively.''

Andre van der Valk, who owns several gas stations in the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County and is president of AuTO-Ca, a 1,200-member association of service stations, said the department is undermanned and ill-equipped to handle more sophisticated types of scams.

``If you are a bad guy, you can do a lot of things to make extra profits for yourself,'' he said. ``These dispensers today are all computers. They can be modified.

``And I don't think (the inspectors) have kept up with the technology. I don't think they have the manpower or have kept up with the sophistication of it.

``I respect what they do. They have a big, big job, but they haven't been given the tools in order to deal with the changing industry.''

The more aggressive enforcement against gas stations that overcharge customers came after the department, long understaffed, added three inspectors -- boosting its ranks to nine.

The inspectors are kept busy as hundreds of complaints about overcharging pour into the office. Last year, the agency's Web site received 624 complaints about overcharges.

``Everybody is in a panic,'' Humphreys said. ``There is no doubt about it. The price of gas has people very, very concerned. Our job is to make sure people are getting what they pay for.''

But despite the hundreds of complaints, Humphreys said fewer than 1 percent of the gas pumps his office inspects overcharge customers.

``Drivers may be confident that their gasoline transactions are accurate and protected by our strong inspection and enforcement program,'' the department director, Kurt E. Floren, said.

But van der Valk said he believes the percentage of pumps overcharging customers is ``higher than that.''

Floren and Humphreys commented after a recent KNBC-TV (Channel 4) investigation that questioned the adequacy and effectiveness of the regulation of retail gas pumps, claiming that both the frequency of inspections and penalties levied for violations of pump accuracy requirements were inadequate.

Within the county, more than 1,800 gas stations dispense fuel from more than 54,000 retail gas pumps. By law, county government is required to inspect every pump at least once a year.

Because of severe underfunding and understaffing in the past three decades, however, Humphreys said, the pumps are inspected only once every 16 months to 18 months.

But thanks to the passage of a bill in 2005 that increased funding for inspectors, Humphreys said he is adding staffers and hopes to have 14 inspectors by the end of 2008.

From 2006 through 2008, registration fees paid by operators of such devices will increase to fund scale and meter inspection programs statewide. In 2008, county weights and measures agencies will be able to establish fees sufficient to cover the costs of inspecting every scale and meter at least annually, Floren said.

As inspectors go out to examine more pumps, more fines roll in. The number of gas-pump inspections in the first half of the year increased by 59 percent over the same period last year, rising from 13,076 to 20,806.

To deter charging for more gas than delivered, Humphreys said, inspectors issue fines ranging from $50 to $2,200, and pumps can be ordered out of service until repaired.

``I agree we need to do more undercover inspections,'' Humphreys said. ``Weights and measures agencies have had to adapt to these changes in technology, and we need to devote more time to undercover inspections. We have one undercover car out there now.

``But it's a big job, and undercover operations are much more time-consuming. So we certainly rely on the public to tell us about any kind of problems they have.''

troy.anderson(at)dailynews.com

(213) 978-0390

WHERE TO CALL

To report an overcharge, call (562) 940-8916 or see http://acwm.co.la.ca.us/scripts/gasform.cfm.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 28, 2006
Words:739
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