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50 local gas stations found shorting customers

Published On: Oct 29 2012 09:30:29 PM CDT   Updated On: Oct 30 2012 07:57:36 AM CDT

Inspectors found a few dozen local gas stations shortchanging their customers at the pump, as a new proposal could add to the team of people making sure drivers get what they pay for, a WISC-TV investigation revealed.

About 50 stations throughout southern and southwestern Wisconsin didn't deliver enough fuel since the start of 2011, mostly because of mechanical errors, inspectors said.

"You never know what you're going to get, which is why we're out here doing this," said Jared Williams, a state inspector who covers all of Dane and Iowa counties, except Madison.

No stations were shorting customers in Madison, records indicate. The city, like other metropolitan areas in Wisconsin, has its own inspectors who are able to check every pump yearly.

"I take it really seriously because I'm a consumer too, and I have to fill up my tank," said Cindy Lease, one of three city inspectors. "The cost of fuel has gone up so much, I think people are more aware of making sure everything's right."

The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has just 14 inspectors that perform quantity checks in outstate areas, including all of Madison's suburbs, Janesville and Beloit. Stations in cities with more than 5,000 people get tested every year, but not so in rural areas.

"I try to get out to as many pumps as I can in a year's time," Williams said.

Department officials have asked Gov. Scott Walker to triple the number of inspectors in his biennial budget. A separate agency does quality tests, meaning many stations get two inspections per year.

That's inefficient, and training all of them to perform one complete test would allow them to check more stations every year, department leaders said.

About 97.9 percent of pumps in 2011 were within the error rate that's allowed, state data indicate. Only 0.4 percent shortchange customers.

"They're not the evil that everybody thinks they are," Williams said.

Of those that failed tests and had pumps "red-tagged," or shut down until they're fixed, a station in Monona was off by 5 cents a gallon. Another pump in Sun Prairie was off by 29 cents a gallon.

Just as many, if not more, stations give customers more fuel that what they paid for. One pump in Beloit was giving drivers an extra 52 cents a gallon.

All of those errors were fixed, managers told WISC-TV.

State and local inspectors check for errors by pumping five gallons into their proving devices, which have a level to indicate the actual amount pumped. Errors are within the allowed range if they're only a few tablespoons under- or over-delivering.

It's impossible to check the mechanics of a pump without the expensive devices the inspectors have, but consumers can still look out for two kinds of errors -- meter creep and meter jump.

Meter creep happens when cents continue to add up even after the consumer stops the pump, while meter jump takes place when the price calculates before the consumer begins pumping.

"Since I've been doing this job, I've told my family and my friends to always make sure the pump starts on zero," Williams said. If it doesn't, don't pump and tell the cashier immediately, he said.

No matter whether the station is in a populated area or a rural one, inspectors respond to consumer complaints within two weeks, Williams said.

To report a complaint, call the state hotline, 1-800-422-7128.

To see whether your station passed the inspection -- or whether it was tested at all in 2011 and 2012, click on the links below to access databases.

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