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UNDERCOVER PROBE FINDS OVERCHARGES AT CHECKOUT.

Byline: Troy Anderson Staff Writer

Government inspectors were overcharged on 11 percent of their purchases during a three-week undercover investigation of checkout scanners at 108 retail stores in Los Angeles County, officials said Wednesday.

During follow-up inspections a week later at 17 stores where overcharges occurred, the county's weights-and-measures inspectors reported being overcharged on 26 percent of their purchases.

The overcharges boosted the cost of the purchases by 3 percent, and were more than three times as frequent as undercharges.

``The shoppers of Los Angeles County are losing substantial dollars each year as a result of inaccuracies between the prices posted and the prices charged through stores' computer-based checkout systems,'' said Cato Fiksdal, agricultural commissioner and director of weights and measures. ``In some stores, it was much worse than what our general surveys have shown in the past.''

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

The new report, obtained by the Daily News, covers an investigation that ended Jan. 7 and focused on discounted merchandise and advertised sale prices. It was conducted at the request of the Board of Supervisors.

The board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on new rules requiring better disclosure of prices charged and training for retail employees.

``The report is alarming and confirms the general suspicion that this is not just an isolated incident, but an ongoing problem that exists throughout the county,'' Supervisor Gloria Molina said.

The investigation found overcharges on 29 percent of merchandise tested at 10 Kmart stores, and undercharges on 4 percent.

Kmart spokeswoman Julie Fracker said the company will take steps to correct any problems. ``We will continue to emphasize the established procedures with the store and headquarters associates and take all steps necessary to ensure that, going forward, items are priced accurately at our stores.''

The report said overcharges occurred at five of 12 Macy's stores inspected, adding more than 14 percent to the cost.

Macy's spokeswoman Rina Neiman said the company understands the importance of accurate pricing and has many programs in place designed to ensure that the prices in the computer system match prices on signs and in advertising.

``Thousands of items are on and off sale at any given time,'' Neiman said. ``Unfortunately, despite all our safeguards, signing errors occasionally do occur. Our policy is to give the customer the lowest price.''

Fiksdal said action will be taken against companies that overcharged. Stores that overcharged by more than $1 face misdemeanor fines of up to $1,000, and stores that overcharged $1 or less face infractions of up to $100.

Overcharges were logged on 3 percent of 62 items at Wal-Mart and undercharges on 8 percent of items.

Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams said the errors appear to be the result of inaccurate price tags. ``The signs on the products were not what was in the computer system when it was checked out. We regret that happened. It's not consistent with our pricing practices, which we believe are among the best and most respected in the retail industry. In the rare instances when this happens, we provide a no-hassle refund to our customers.''

County officials said they have only one inspector to ensure that the county's 10,000 stores have scanners that charge customers fairly but used other personnel in response to the supervisors' request.

From July 2000 to August 2001, 98 stores in the county were found guilty of overcharging, officials said.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jan 24, 2002
Words:589
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