After Karl Smith pulled into a Chatsworth Chevron station last week, the attendant stood by quietly while Smith pumped all the gas he wanted and left without paying a dime.
When Darryl Wilhith marched into a Northridge Vons supermarket, he fiddled with the electronic scales for hours. But the manager didn't dare throw him out.
Smith and Wilhith are interlopers, all right. But as inspectors for the Los Angeles County Department of Weights and Measures, it isn't a good idea to get in their way.
Each day, 42 of the department's investigators fan out to check more than 20,000 businesses, including 2,200 in the San Fernando Valley, that fall within their jurisdiction.
The department's meters division is responsible for checking the accuracy of measuring devices such as the 38,825 gas pumps and 1,690 taxi meters in the county.
The scales division inspects the 18,000 scales in the county that are used in commercial transactions. The department's third division, quantity control, ensures that the 7 billion packages a year processed in the county correctly state the content of each.
"You almost can't conduct commerce in a day without running into Weights and Measures," deputy director Nahan Gluck said.
The inspectors see to it that when you buy a pound of bananas, you get a pound, and when the box says 10 wieners, you get 10.
"We know we're doing a good job when people can take things for granted," said Collis Turner, head of the meters division.
And many of them do.
"I'm pretty trusting," said Mike Aronson, a 36-year-old Chatsworth sales executive who was filling up at a Chevron station. "Because of these people," Aronson said, pointing at Smith, "I know that the pumps are pretty accurate. I think it's blind faith."
The inspectors take their jobs seriously. Inaccurate scales and meters cost consumers more than $2.5 million a year, Gluck said.
Said Turner: "On the average, 3% of all the meters checked are giving short measure."
As for retail gas station meters, 10.9% countywide are tagged for violations, Gluck said. In the Valley, the figure is 7.4%.
About 25% of the approximately 4,000 complaints the department receives each year relate to service station problems, he said. The typical complaint comes from a consumer who calls and says something like, " 'I just paid for 15 gallons of gas and my Volkswagen doesn't hold 15 gallons,' " Gluck said.
Easy to Be Cheated
Despite the inspections, customers could get clipped at the pump in in half a dozen ways and never know it, Gluck said.
Some of the more subtle tricks occur after the sale and involve both credit card and cash transactions, Gluck said. He said customers should look both at the prices put on their receipts by imprinting machines and those written in by attendants.
"The printed price may be one dollar more than the written price," Gluck said.
Consumers should also be wary of stations that offer discounts for cash purchases. "In many places, you won't get the cash discount unless you demand it," Gluck said. "It's not necessarily the policy of the stations. Just bad employees."
But the most common problem is inaccurate pump meters. Average pump errors at gas stations cost consumers $500 to $1,000 a year per station, Smith said.
Errors Add Up
"Although each consumer loses only 5 to 10 cents, because the stations pump an average of 65,000 to 85,000 gallons a month, the cost adds up," said Smith, who is responsible for inspecting meters in the West Valley.
At a 160,000-gallons-a-month Sherman Oaks station that he recently inspected, pump errors cost consumers $4,968 a year, Smith said.
Supermarkets with inaccurate scales could also shortchange inattentive shoppers. Almost one out of every five grocery items sold is charged incorrectly, Gluck said.
The most common problem occurs when a customer is charged the regular price for an item that is on sale, Gluck said. This often happens when electronic scanners used at the check stand have not been reprogrammed to reflect sale prices, he said.
Currently, the district attorney's office is investigating whether some of the major supermarket chains in Los Angeles are systematically overcharging for products through electronic scanners, Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Papageorge said. Investigators are trying to determine whether the scanners are being updated to reflect changes in price, he said.
Up to 10 Cases a Year
The district attorney's Consumer and Environment Protection Division files civil and criminal charges on five to 10 major weights and measures cases a year, Papageorge said.
Although 95% of the violations are unintentional, state law governing weights and measures requires only that prosecutors prove that the merchant inaccurately weighed or measured goods. "We don't have to prove intent," said Gluck, whose department works closely with prosecutors.
One of the largest cases won by the district attorney's office was a $198,800 judgment against Target Enterprises Inc. of Downey for deceptive practices, including selling leaded gas as unleaded gas and selling regular gas as premium gas, Papageorge said.
In October, the district attorney's office also won a $32,500 judgment against Sun Country Sellers of New York for selling its popular wine cooler in bottles that were 1% to 3% short in volume, Papageorge said.
"That wine cooler is bought by 10,000 Los Angeles consumers a day," Papageorge said.
To spot questionable business practices, the department's investigators also pose as shoppers, Gluck said.
Wilhith recalled one incident in which he bought jumbo shrimps as an undercover purchaser in Wilmington. The clerk placed the shrimps in heavy plastic bags before weighing them. Wilhith issued a notice of violation because the clerk failed to subtract the weight of the bag.
"At $13 a pound, that bag was worth 52 cents," Wilhith said.
The clerk told Wilhith that his boss had told him to weigh the bag with the shrimps, the inspector said.
"I'm not saying that all merchants are doing that," Wilhith said. "There are some honest ones out there, but there are just as many dishonest ones too."
Said Turner: "Our job is to make sure there is equity between the buyer and seller."
That means the inspectors also try to protect the store and station owners. "Even the people we regulate are buying something from somewhere else," Turner said.
Wilhith said, "Sometimes the store loses big when the clerks grossly undercharge. Eight out of 10 bad scales will be in favor of buyers. So some people are glad to see me come."