13 Investigates finds more pump problems
As gas prices linger near $3.50 per gallon, Eyewitness News finds some gas stations aren't giving you what you paid for. Pumps that are cheating customers are supposed to be shut down by inspectors. But in Indiana's largest county – where there are far more gas pumps that anywhere else in the state – 13 Investigates has discovered most pumps don't get their legally-required check-ups and the inspection program is broken.
Mike Thomas is passionate about his job.
"I'm the guy who makes sure we're getting what we pay for," he said while looking inside a gas pump in Carmel.
Thomas is a Hamilton County weights & measures inspector, and each year he carefully checks the county's 63 gas pumps to make sure they are accurate and safe.
A special measuring device tells Thomas whether pumps are charging customers for exactly the amount of fuel they are receiving. If a pump is off by just a few tablespoons, it passes its test and gets approved. But some pumps are off by a lot, and those get tagged with a red card, meaning they are condemned and shut down until the pumps are recalibrated and fixed.
"The machines are mechanical and most machines wear, so they do need to be checked," Thomas explained.
WTHR obtained hundreds of inspection reports for gas stations all over central Indiana. They show at some gas stations, you're not getting what you paid for – in some cases, not even close.
Getting ripped off
This summer, Thomas found one pump at a Circle K gas station in Carmel was cheating customers by 6 cents per gallon.
At a Murphy USA gas station in Plainfield, reports show two pumps were overcharging patrons by 9 cents per gallon.
And at a busy Shell station on the west side of Indianapolis, a pump was shortchanging customers by 28 cents per gallon, according to the station's most recent inspection report.
13 Investigates found at other gas stations, you might be getting ripped off before you pump any gas at all.
That's what happened to Phyllis Krebbs.
She is the victim of "meter jumping," which occurs when the price on the pump starts moving before you start pumping.
"I picked up the nozzle and, after I picked it up, it went to 46 cents and no fuel at all had come out," Krebbs said, pointing to one of the offending pumps at a BP gas station in Bloomington.
Krebbs has a handful of receipts showing pumps at that same station jumped on five separate visits.
"You get what you pay for but I was paying for something I didn't get," she said.
Each time, Krebbs complained to store managers but her complaining didn't do much good.
When a WTHR reporter tried to purchase gas at the same station – just moments after interviewing Krebbs – the meter on pump 8 jumped 12 cents prior to delivering any gasoline.
A manager at the BP told 13 Investigates that the pumps at his station are old. He provided a phone number to his company's corporate headquarters (they have not yet returned any of our phone calls) and asked Eyewitness News to leave.
13 Investigates immediately called the Monroe County Department of Weights & Measures to report the problem. A few hours later, an inspector confirmed that at least three pumps at the gas station were jumping, and they were all shut down.
Inspection reports show meter jumping is a problem at dozens of gas stations around central Indiana. At some stations, inspectors found a single pump jumping just 2 or 3 cents. At other locations, they discovered multiple pumps jumping as much as 63 cents each.
That can really add up. At a busy gas station, 63 cents per fill-up multiplied by 100 customers per day equals nearly $23,000 profit per year for fuel that customers never received.
Inspectors recommend you watch the pump's electronic screen closely – especially before it first starts pumping – to make sure the meter does not jump.
According to the Indiana Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, there could be a variety reasons to explain why a meter would jump.
"The problem, which is very difficult to pinpoint, could be from the nozzle all the way to the submergible pump in the underground tank," IPCA executive director Scott Imus wrote in response to WTHR's report. "One thing is clear - a meter jump does not occur consistently from customer to customer, nor would it jump by the exact same amount each time … depending upon where the problem occurred, there is a possibility that the consumer would end up receiving that gasoline in their tank."
While some pumps overcharge customers, others are rejected by inspectors because they are giving away too much free gas. While that benefits individual consumers, undercharging for gas robs the state of fuel tax revenues.
Earlier this year, seven of ten pumps at a Citgo station in Martinsville were shut down for undercharging customers up to 11 cents per gallon.
And this summer at the Flying J truckstop in Lebanon, a poorly-calibrated diesel pump was giving truck drivers two free gallons of fuel for every three pumped.
"That was a big surprise!" said Boone County weights & measures inspector Terry Culley, who found the mistake. "I've never seen anything like that before."
Whether pumps are undercharging customers or charging too much, inspectors say it's almost always the result of pump malfunction – not malice.
"We want to make sure the pumps are set correctly so it's fair for everyone – both the consumer and the gas station," explained Thomas.
Imus points out only a small percentage of pumps are defective from an economical standpoint (7.4% according to compiled inspection records) and that most miscalibrated pumps are actually undercharging consumers.
"A miscalibrated pump usually costs the retailer," he wrote. "In the case where the opposite is true, no honest retailer wants to compete against a dishonest one who is not delivering a full gallon of gasoline to customer and is able to post a lower price."
Hundreds of pumps rejected
WTHR analyzed inspection reports for more than 6,000 central Indiana gas pumps. The analysis shows 12% of those pumps failed their most recent inspection. Inspectors rejected the pumps for not giving the proper amount of gas, safety problems such as leaking fuel hoses and other malfunctions.
Because pumps are subject to those types of problems, every gas pump in Indiana must be inspected at least once a year. It's state law and, in most Indiana counties, the law is being followed.
But 13 Investigates found that is not the case in Marion County.
In September, WTHR joined Marion County weights & measures inspector Beatrice Florczyk as she inspected gas pumps on the east side of Indianapolis.
Florczyk shook her head as she wiped gas from a leaking hose.
"I've seen pumps and hoses spring leaks all over the place," she said. "That has to be fixed because it's a safety issue. You don't want gasoline leaking, so I'm going to shut it down."
Then she removed an outer panel of the gas pump to reveal the mechanical components inside. They were surrounded by a thick series of cobwebs.
"This one has not been checked since '09," she admitted.
Inspections "not possible"
By looking at hundreds of inspection reports, Eyewitness News discovered most gas pumps in Indianapolis have gone two or three years with no inspection, and some pumps were never inspected at all. The county's inspection program is in disarray after the Marion County Department of Code Enforcement (DCE) – which took control of gas station inspections in early 2010 – failed to replace veteran inspectors who retired.
"When I first started it was 1988, we had six inspectors," said Florczyk. "Now I'm actually the only one working."
Florczyk is currently the county's only certified weights & measures inspector – responsible for checking more than 3,000 gas pumps in Indianapolis. (Weights & Measures inspectors are also responsible for inspecting grocery store scales, pharmacy scales, taxi cab meters and all other certified measuring devices in their county.)
How can one person inspect all those pumps?
"Obviously, I can't," Florczyk said, shrugging her shoulders. "So they're not done. I like to do ‘em all, but it's not possible."
Most other counties in central Indiana completed all of their annual gas station inspections weeks ago. That is not the case in Marion County, where less than half of the county's 360 gas stations have been inspected within the past twelve months.
At some gas stations, consumers have paid a price for the lack of inspections.
"It says I already have ten cents worth of gas, but I don't," said Cherita Long, pointing to a pump at an eastside Sunoco. She told 13 Investigates several pumps at the station had been meter jumping for months, prompting her to buy gas elsewhere.
"It's just a dime but I need that dime. It needs to go in my tank," she said.
When Florczyk inspected pumps at that gas station in September, she discovered Long was right. Three pumps were red tagged and shut down for charging customers before they began dispensing fuel.
Nobody knows how long customers had been cheated at those pumps. 13 Investigates found the Sunoco station hadn't been inspected by a county inspector in 25 months. Remember, state law requires every pump be inspected within twelve months – something that rarely happens nowadays in Marion County.
Earlier this week, Eyewitness News asked the director of DCE for answers.
"Seems to me like you found something we need to look at and focus on within the department," said agency director Rick Powers, who called the lapse in inspections "completely unacceptable."
Just days after 13 Investigates asked to see the county's fuel pump inspection records, DCE began training a new full-time inspector and re-assigned several county zoning inspectors to help with gas pump inspections, as well.
Over the past few weeks, they've been working long hours and even weekends to make sure gas pumps around Indianapolis are both accurate and safe.
Asked why the agency took no steps to fill vacancies and catch up on pump inspections until the problem was identified this fall by WTHR, Powers took a moment to reflect.
"If I'm ignorant of a point, I can't address it. But once I know, I'm no longer ignorant and I should move on it," he said. "I cannot sidestep where we're at. What I want to do is correct something that's wrong if it's broken. Is it going to change? Yes. I assure you. Yes. We're going to react to it and fix it."
Seal of approval?
Powers also said he would address another problem identified by Eyewitness News: the seals used by Marion County inspectors to show consumers that a pump has been inspected are outdated and meaningless.
In most central Indiana counties, weights & measures inspectors issue a seal that shows the year – and often the month – that a pump is inspected and approved. That date is printed on the seal and cannot be altered or removed.
Marion County has a different system. It issues a blue seal for pumps inspected in odd years (such as 2011) and a yellow sticker for pumps inspected in even years (such as 2010). The seals do not include a printed date, which is instead written onto the seal in magic marker at the time of inspection.
The system has several major flaws.
First, the magic marker rubs off within six to eight weeks, leaving no date to show when the pump was approved. Second, the county is severely behind in its inspection program with most pumps not being inspected for two or three years. As a result, most gas pumps in Marion County have a seal with no date and no system for determining whether a blue sticker means a pump was inspected in spring of 2011 or spring of 2009 – or even spring of 2007.
"When a consumer sees a seal on a pump, they are going to assume it's been approved and checked this year," said Michelle Phillips, a longtime Marion County weights & measures inspector who retired in 2010. "Right now a seal on a pump in Marion County really means nothing because you don't know if it's current or not, and you don't know how long it's been since that device was tested. I think we all as consumers have a false sense of security that we are getting what we paid for."
Phillips said she avoids filling her gas tank in Marion County because so many stations are long overdue for an inspection.
Thomas, who inspects gas pumps in Hamilton County, said he wouldn't feel comfortable buying gas at stations that hadn't been inspected in two years, either.
"I'd be leery," Thomas said. "They need to be checked and the longer you let problems go, the worse they're going to get."
Powers says he will now consider switching to different seals that will show exactly when Marion County gas pumps have last been inspected.
"You're making me aware of an issue that I wasn't aware existed," he said. If the sticker is not communicating to the consumer there's protection, we need to change that."
This week, in response to WTHR's investigation, the Department of Code Enforcement set up a hotline to help consumers who find pump problems in Marion County. To report a problem, you can call 317-327-FUEL (3835) or send an email.
Want to find out if your favorite gas station has been recently inspected -- and if it's been cited for overcharging customers or giving away too much free gas? Check out WTHR's gas pump database to find information on nearly 700 gas stations in the 9-county metro area – including gas stations in your neighborhood.
Want to file a complaint about a gas pump? See a complete list of county Weights & Measures inspectors in Indiana (including their phone numbers) so you can report a problem to your county inspector.