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N4T Investigators: Are gas stations overcharging their customers as prices top $4?

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N4T: How are gas pumps regulated in Arizona? And how much do service stations actually profit from a gallon of gas

TUCSON (KVOA) - Oil companies deny they are price gouging. But are you getting what you pay for at the pump?

A number of you have reached out, with concerns about price gouging at the pump. We break down how state inspections work.

"I used to spend $25 bucks to fill up my Honda Civic. Now it’s $50," said Tucson driver Vincent Bianchi.

"Usually, I can fill up my gas tank for $25 max," said a Tucson teacher, who wished to remain anonymous. "I just spent $43.27 for a full tank of gas on a Toyota Corolla."

"I’m trying to fill it up, it’s $70," said Benny Rayes. "Used to be $50."

Rayes says he keeps an eye on the meter.

"You have to," he said. "Otherwise you could get cheated."

With gas topping $4, state inspectors say complaints about gas stations overcharging are up 30 percent.

"We have three inspectors based out of the Tucson area," said Kevin Allen with the Arizona Department of Agriculture’s Weights and Measures Services Division. "They basically cover everything from Casa Grande all the way to Mexico and over to New Mexico."

Allen makes sure a gallon at the pump is a full gallon in your tank.

"We measure error in cubic inches," said Allen. "There are 231 cubic inches in a gallon. And the error that’s allowable in a five-gallon test is plus or minus six cubic inches."

Allen adds, "If we go outside of that, if it’s minus seven for instance, cubic inches, that’s out of tolerance in favor of the owner operator which would be detrimental to the consumer."

From March 15 to April 15, the state inspected 37 gas stations with 368 fuel devices throughout Southern Arizona. Twenty seven of those inspections resulted from a customer complaint, and six were found to be valid.

Here’s what inspectors found:

Eight devices were found to be in favor of the gas station owner, meaning consumers received less fuel than what was indicated on the pump.

Three devices were cited for “meter jump", where the meter starts before fuel is being dispensed.

One device was found to have “meter creep", where the meter keeps going up after fuel has stopped being pumped.

Two devices were found to be in favor of the consumer, meaning consumers received more fuel than what was indicated on the pump.

When an inspector finds a violation, the pump is taken out of service and the owner faces a fine.

Allen says it is rare you are not getting everything that you pay for.

"We find that the dispensers are out of tolerance in favor of the consumer about twice as much as they are detrimental to the consumer," said Allen. 

"When prices increase like this, we know customers are incredibly frustrated," said Jeff Lenard with the National Association of Convenience Stores. "The average vehicle uses 500 gallons of fuel per year. When prices are a dollar higher that’s $500 per vehicle."

While many drivers suspect price gouging by station owners, Lenard says higher gas prices can lead to smaller profits or even losses for service stations.

"When you look at overall markup, the markup on a gallon of gas, it tends to be about 30-cents a gallon," said Allen. "From that, the retailer pays 15 to 20-cents in expenses and makes about 10-cents a gallon or about $1 on a typical 10-gallon fill up."

Tucson driver Cassandra Martinez said, "We need help, we’re in distress at the point when it comes to gas prices."

If you have concerns about gasoline pumps or price discrepancies, the Department of Weights and Measures responds to all complaints within 10-days. To file a complaint, click here

If you have a story you'd like us to investigate, email us at investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 520-955-4444.

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