As fuel prices climb, California motorists are paying closer attention at the pump. While the State of California can’t place a limit on the price of a gallon of gas, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) can make sure you get what you pay for.
“Every time a driver fills a gas tank in California, it’s our job to make sure that transaction is fair and accurate,” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “If a gas pump isn’t calibrated correctly or it isn’t programmed to match the advertised price, the problem can easily cost a single motorist several dollars on a single fill-up. Our inspectors and investigators have the authority to make sure the pumps dispense fuel accurately, prices are advertised correctly, and fuel quality is consistent.”
CDFA’s oversight is extremely cost-effective, costing each Californian less than a dollar a year. That investment produces results: with more than 300 county inspectors and about 20 state investigators checking these stations and pumps, inspection data show that 95 percent of the retail fuel dispensers tested each year are delivering fuel accurately and charging the correct amount. That’s important in a state where 15 billion gallons of gasoline and 2.5 billion gallons of diesel are sold each year.
By law, retail gas and diesel pumps must be checked annually. Inspectors test the accuracy of delivery, verifying that the gallons indicated are the gallons received. They also check for required labeling on the pump, including the brand name, grade/octane of fuel and whether it is gasoline or diesel. Prices on the pump are compared to price signs and the mathematical computations are verified. A seal is affixed to the pump to indicate that a pump is accurate and correct at the time of inspection.
Gas price manipulation
California’s 95 percent compliance rate for pump accuracy is consistently among the nation’s leading states, and its 97 percent compliance rate for octane accuracy exceeds the rates in the limited number of other states that check for octane.
A violation of these state laws is generally considered a criminal misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $1,000 and/or six months in county jail. Lesser, technical violations may be handled at the county level with an administrative civil penalty ranging from $50 to $1,000. More extensive violations (such as a pattern of manipulation to “short deliver” fuel, for example) may be referred to the District Attorney’s Office and addressed under laws regarding unfair business practice or unfair competition, with penalties of $2,500 per count.
Higher prices at the pump tend to lead motorists to wonder whether gas stations are manipulating their dispensers in order to boost their profits on fuel sales. With the rapid rise in fuel prices since January, the complaint rate has doubled. As California’s high compliance rates indicate, no fraud or manipulation is evident in the vast majority of our inspections and investigations. Still, consumers understandably feel frustrated when prices rise.
Complaints should be directed to the county weights and measures office, usually within the Agricultural Commissioner’s office; or the CDFA Division of Measurement Standards — call the office in your region: Sacramento 916-229-3000; Fresno 559-445-5403; Anaheim 714-680-7896.
Most retailers depend on return business, so they make every effort to treat consumers fairly and honestly. When low-quality fuel or fraudulent behavior is found, state and county officials are quick to step in and protect consumers.