Are some gas stations using 'fuzzy math' to keep your money?

Are some gas stations using 'fuzzy math' to keep your money? »Play Video
Kerry Tomlinson talks to a clerk about how gas prices are discounted. KATU Image.

PORTLAND, Ore. - Gas prices are high, but could you be getting extra pain at the pump from a gas station trying to trick you out of even more money?

The KATU Problem Solvers looked into how some gas stations can use fuzzy math to trick you out of your money.

Don Haugen is one of many local drivers watching every penny that goes into his tank.  "I'm trying to save any little bit of gas money I can," he said.  "We don't go nowhere.  I go to work, I go home."

The state of Oregon is watching, too.  The Oregon Measurement Standards Division checks every pump, every year.  There are about 30,000 of them state-wide.

"We do quite frequently run into tolerance issues: inaccuracies, they're off," said Josh Nelson, field supervisor for the Measurement Standards Division.

The OMSD says about one in ten pumps is out of compliance.  Some pumps are giving out too much gas, some too little.  But the OMSD says it is not because of fraud.

"Generally, what we see is equipment failure.  After so much volume of product goes through a meter, it goes out of calibration one way or another and needs service, and we make sure that service gets taken care of," Nelson said.

But that does not mean you are free to fuel up without worry. 

Haugen became concerned when he drove to the Shell station is Cornelius on Adair Street.  He saw the cash price of $4.09 and asked for the cash price at the pump. 

But he happened to notice that the attendant was pumping his gas at the wrong price, the credit price, 10 cents a gallon more.  The gas station's plan was to give him a "discount" at the register - and he got it.  But he worries that plan makes it too easy to fool drivers.

The Problem Solvers went undercover to test the station at the end of May, soon after receiving Don's complaint.  We asked for the cash price, but as Don described, the attendant pumped our gas at the credit price, 10 cents more.

We went to pay at the register and receive our discount, and that's where the fuzzy math comes in.

The pump read $48.78, the credit price.  The cashier told us to pay $48.00 even, as if it were the discounted price.  He did not offer us a receipt.

We insisted on the receipt and did our own math.  We found out he had given us a fake discount.  The real discount price was $47.65.  Our 35 cents went into someone else's pocket. 

It's not a lot of money, but for Don, it's important. "With the economy as hard as it is right now, yeah, I need every little penny I got," he said.  "It's taking it away from people that need that money."

The Problem Solvers stopped in at the gas station again, but this time, a different clerk was behind the counter.  The clerk told us a computer issue showed the wrong price at the pump, the higher, credit price.

“It was a software problem.  We just recently... the last update was today.  It just updated again and just fixed it,” said the clerk, who identified himself as Kevin.

We asked to speak to the manager or owner to learn more about the fuzzy math problem, the cashier requesting more money  from us than we should have paid.  Josh Carrington responded to our request by phone and asked to see the receipt.

He first sent us a fax acknowledging the problem, but then changed his approach by phone.  He said that it "didn't happen" and that KATU was "making it all up."

We requested to meet with him and go over the surveillance video showing our interaction with the cashier.  He refused, and later hung up during the conversation.

"It's not right.  Especially with the economy and gas prices and everything else, it's not right," Haugen said.

Here's how you can protect yourself:

  • Check the pump to see if the attendant is pumping your gas at the right price.
  • Do the math yourself.  Don't rely on the cashier.
  • Get a receipt and double check to make sure it matches what you  actually paid.