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SCANNERS DON'T CHECK OUT L.A. COUNTY INSPECTORS OVERCHARGED IN 34 PERCENT OF STORES MONITORED.

Byline: Troy Anderson Staff Writer

Spot-checks of price scanners at more than 500 retail stores in Los Angeles County found that one-third overcharged customers, according to inspectors hired in a crackdown on consumer fraud.

Under the ``Buyer Beware Program'' started nearly six months ago, county weights and measures inspectors working undercover found that auto supply, department and music stores were among the worst offenders.

Of 537 inspections conducted since the Board of Supervisors approved the program Feb. 12, inspectors found they were overcharged in 184 stores - or 34 percent of the time. Inspectors spot-checked stores countywide, including in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys.

``A lot of the businesses out there are very surprised when they get a citation,'' said Warren Dias, the deputy agricultural commissioner in charge of the program. ``We are finding a lot more violations now because the program has 12 inspectors who go out into the field. Before Feb. 12, I only had one inspector.''

Dias expects his inspectors to be able to conduct about 450 checks a month as glitches are worked out of the program. The county has an estimated 7,500 retail outlets with scanners.

``Like any new program, there have been lots of calls with questions about the program and the bills,'' Agricultural Commissioner Cato Fiksdal said. ``While there have been some early hitches, everything seems to be going well. We are very gratified that some retailers are applauding our efforts.''

Supervisor Gloria Molina, who spearheaded the program after being overcharged at a Macy's and Kmart, said overcharging at retail stores is obviously still a problem.

``The report indicates the need to continue with this program,'' Molina said. ``Obviously, one inspector was not enough. They are at a point where they have a significant more number of inspectors and are able to cover more ground.

``We look forward to the day when this problem no longer exits, but obviously it continues to be a problem.''

Spokesmen for the California Grocers Association and California Retailers Association did not return calls for comment.

The supervisors approved the program after inspectors found they were overcharged on 60 percent of their purchases for advertised sale items. The overcharges were discovered during a pilot three-week investigation in December and January at 108 retail stores in the county.

The investigation focused on discounted merchandise and advertised sale prices.

During the past two decades, the county's one inspector checked retail accuracy at an average of 650 stores a year, finding overcharges on 4 percent to 7 percent of items purchased.

Outraged over the widespread overcharging at retail stores, the supervisors voted to hire 17 more inspectors and to begin posting notices in store windows notifying customers how often a store is convicted of overcharging.

``It should not come as a surprise that there is this type of trend when up until now we have not been holding the businesses accountable,'' Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

``Some of the businesses may be doing it unintentionally and may not know they are overcharging. The purpose of this program is to hold businesses accountable so they don't charge more than the price of the goods they are selling.''

On April 29, the inspectors begin giving stores with no overcharges signs they could voluntarily post saying, ``No Overcharge Violation.''

Once the new cases filed since the program began are adjudicated in the courts, inspectors will be allowed to require retailers to post signs notifying the public of their convictions for overcharging.

The inspectors are also distributing 3- by 4-inch yellow and blue notices to each store they inspect. The notices must be displayed on or near each scanner, alerting consumers to their right to be charged the lowest posted or advertised price offered by that store.

Stores that overcharge by more than $1 per item face misdemeanor fines of up to $1,000 and stores that overcharge $1 or less face infraction fines of up to $100.

The retailers convicted from November until the program started have paid a total of $30,258 in fines, fees, restitution, investigative expenses and charitable donations.

Dias said the retailers issued citations offered a variety of explanations why their scanners overcharged. Primarily, they cited either human error or cases in which the computer systems had not been updated with sale or discounted prices.

``Business reaction varies from it was just a clerical error to some of the bigger businesses where they said it's something they are doing the best they can at and human error plays a significant role in these things,'' Dias said.

In a letter to the supervisors in February, California Grocers Association spokesman Gilbert Canizales wrote that the Federal Trade Commission issued a report finding that the error rate among food retailers averaged 2.42 percent, with overcharges in 1 percent and undercharges in 1 percent of the cases.

``Errors can be caused by human mistakes in data entry, or more likely by the failure to promptly change a shelf tag,'' Canizales wrote. ``Price changes are an ongoing and crucial part of any retail business. Given the fact that between 3,000 to 5,000 price changes occur weekly in a grocery store, we understand the magnitude of our endeavor.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jul 16, 2002
Words:867
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