Some Los Angeles area drivers recently found that a gallon of gas just wasn't going as far as it used to - not because their cars were inefficient, but because they didn't get a full gallon to begin with.
They were swindled in what is believed to be the first case of computer-aided gasoline fraud in the United States. Four people, including Mepco Oil Co. managers and a pump technician, have been charged in the case.
While consumers lost an average of only $1 each, somebody's wallet got about $1 million thicker over the course of about a year, says Thomas Papageorge, an L.A. County deputy district attorney and director of the Consumer Protection Division.
The case emphasizes how the age-old crime of short-measuring keeps getting a higher-tech face - the space age equivalent to the butcher's thumb on the scale. From inspections of electronic scanners to taxi meters, regulators hasten to keep measurement-testing techniques up to date.
Swindlers often see short-measuring as the perfect crime because they think the public won't notice or won't do anything about small overcharges.
In this case, circuit boards in the gas pumps appear to have been altered to dispense less gas than the amount displayed. But by accurately dispensing one-, five-, and 10-gallon amounts (which are routinely tested), the scheme was designed to fool county inspectors, says Cato Fiksdal, interim L.A. County agricultural commissioner and sealer of weights and measures.
Because the manipulation was so sophisticated, it didn't "require collusion with gas-station managers or pump operators," Mr. Papageorge says. "It's quite possible that no one at these stations realized their pumps were giving short measure."
Based on consumer tips, undercover inspectors pumped nonstandard amounts and discovered the short-measuring at some Mepco-owned or -managed stations.
A preliminary hearing for the criminal case is set for Nov. 23. But in a civil suit, Mepco and its president, Peter Tejera, while not admitting liability, agreed to pay $640,000 for penalties, investigative costs, and future training for such inspections.
This incident was another reminder, business and government officials say, that not only does "buyer beware" still apply, but interstate and international commerce in the electronic age depends on ensuring well-enforced standards as much as when the Founding Fathers gave Congress power "to ... fix the standard of weights and measures."
While almost all such enforcement has been traditionally left to states (in some, like California and Pennsylvania, counties assume most of the responsibility), the nation's standard weights and measures are established by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), part of the Commerce Department.
The overwhelming majority of businesspeople are honest, says Mr. Fiksdal. Nevertheless, there's a lot to inspect.
"If it's measured or weighed, we check it," he says. "Vehicle scales, yardage meters, water vending machines - to make sure people actually get a gallon. If you sell people beer by the pint, you better give them a pint." NIST also checks new taxi meters and odometers in ambulances, whose operators charge for mileage.
Because of the implications for fair competition, most businesses strongly support regulation of measurements.
Packagers of horticultural mulches and potting soils, for example, sought NIST assistance when an industry problem arose over unintentional short-measuring. State inspectors had ordered the return of some inaccurate shipments, adding to transportation costs. After the joint effort to find a solution, says a spokesman for the industry's trade group, no member businesses had significant violations.
Electronic price scanners are other problem areas. Supermarkets generally don't deliberately cheat customers, Fiksdal says. Rather, someone forgets to update computerized sale prices.