WIS INVESTIGATES: Are you getting what you pay for at the pump? - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina |

WIS INVESTIGATES: Are you getting what you pay for at the pump?

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If you're not paying attention, you could be pumping money right out of your wallet. It's happening at some gas stations across the state. The state has 72,000 gas pumps.

Our investigation uncovered thousands of pumps statewide over the last 18 months found by state inspectors to be shorting customers, others to the customers benefit.

So how do you know where you might be getting shortchanged?

We use them to fill our vehicles, keeping us on the go, but that large, expensive measuring device, which is what a gas pump is, could cost you plenty.

"Between here and the grocery store that's where most people's money goes now," said Christy Strong, a customer.

Think about the last time you filled up, were you paying attention?

"Unless you're standing there looking directly at it, and most people are looking around, checking out the person on the other side, talking to the kids inside the car, they don't really pay a whole lot of attention," said Harriet Flowers, a Pelion gas station manager.

Here's what you missed. Between January 2012 and August 2013, the state inspected 136,069 gas pumps statewide, 3,494 of those pumps didn't pass inspection. Nearly 300 of those pumps are right here in the Midlands, including this station where we caught up with these customers.

"That's very shocking; very shocking," said gas station customer Dameion Ramsey.

At one station on Broad River Road, state inspectors found two of their eight pumps, shorting customers.

"I'm a computer tech, things mechanically can get out of whack innocently," said Allen Livingston, a gas station customer.

Whatever the cause, 90 pumps in the Midlands were shorting customers, including us as we tested one of the pumps at that station that promised the state to fix their pumps. We pumped $2.58 gallons into the container, but the pump reads, $2.68, overcharging us 37 cents a gallon. State inspectors do it a little differently, using a five gallon proofer.

"These proofers are verified by national measuring standards, so they're accurate and we check those on a regular basis," said Kelly Coakley, Department of Agriculture public information director.

It's simple: stations are given no advance warning. The inspectors fill their proofer at each pump.

"There's a measuring device on the front and they watch the dial here, they watch the meter, when it shows five gallons on here, they stop," said Coakley.

"We'll put it on level ground sometimes and this one is minus one cubic inches," said Talbert Turner, a state inspector.

Stations are given a margin of error.

"There's a plus or minus six cubic inches or 3.3 ounces on a five gallon test," said Coakley.

How does that impact you? If a station's pump is out of compliance, if the price is $3.20, then the customer is looking at paying an additional 1.6 cents per gallon. On a 20 gallon tank, that's 32 cents a customer, but if 50 customers use that pump that day, that's $16 and within a week it could be $112 on that pump alone.

"If you take a penny from everyone, it's not much but if you take a penny from somebody every single day you know it adds up," said Strong.

That's not the only way you might be shorted. There's also meter creeping and pump jumping where the dial is rolling but you haven't yet squeezed the handle on the nozzle.

"The handle is the trigger. It's supposed to activate the device," said Coakley. 

In Pelion, we talked to the manager at one station after they received a warning order in July for pump creeping and jumping at three of their pumps. She explains how it happens.

"They try to get every penny that they're paying for they'll shake the pump and they'll just, shake the nozzle and every bit of the surplus that's in that nozzle is going to go into their vehicle, well they paid for it they should get it whatever, it's just a surplus it's not even pennies, but what happens is that person who stood there and did that, when the person comes up behind them if they lift the nozzle on the pump that hose is going to fill back up and the most I've seen it come up is $.31," said the owner.

Her station reimburses customers when they notice discrepancies.

"We make it right," said the owner. "We'll hand them the 17 cents or the 20 cents or whatever and it doesn't happen often."

They also welcome inspectors.

"They have a job to do and a reason to do it," said the owner. "I don't have a problem with them coming out to inspect."

Where the state draws the line is water at the pump.

"If there's water present here, there's zero tolerance, this pump would be, we'd have to issue a stop sale, until the problem is corrected," said Coakley.

Tanks are also checked, using a paste, and depending on whether the fuel contains ethanol as the inspector show us in this test, the paste will turn yellow or red if water is present.

"It would turn that color at however many inches," said Turner.

It's a stations responsibility to close down a pump until it's fixed, given 10 days to correct the problem, using third party technicians, certified by the state.

"The station has to notify us within ten days and send in the paperwork that they have taken these corrective actions," said Coakley.

The state agency admits, it's hard to follow up - with just 20 inspectors to cover the entire state. They rely on stations to correct their problems.

Customers think the annual inspections should be more frequent.

"Probably but how, there are a lot of stations, our taxes are already high," said Livingston.

So part of the responsibility falls to you -- the customer -- to look for state inspection stickers to ensure a pump has been inspected and to call the number on those stickers and report any problems you notice. We found pumps with out of date inspection stickers and unreadable displays, another reason the state might cite a station.

"The old saying, 'knowledge is power,' it really holds and stands for something," said Dameion Ramsey.

Ensuring you get what you pay for because even the Department of Agriculture admits, you deserve better.

Coakley agrees, "We want to make sure that when a customer comes to a gas station he or she gets exactly what they're paying for."

After all that, here's the good news, while 90 pumps shorted customers, 131 pumps in the Midlands, were found to be to the customers benefit. 

Copyright 2013 WIS. All rights reserved.

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