June 09, 2009


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While I'm Thinking About It

On the fun of discovering a scam.

There's an independent gas station not far from where I live. It used to be a Tesoro, but hasn't been for several years now, and that part is not, strictly speaking, relevant to the story. Like a lot of gas stations seem to be doing nowadays, they have two prices posted for a gallon of gas: one for if you pay by cash, and another, slightly higher, if you pay with some form of plastic.

I can understand the desire to do such a thing. The card companies charge merchants for the privilege of accepting their wallet-sized slabs of plastic as payment for goods and services rendered. So the merchant has an uncomfortable choice to make: accept those fees and the resultant lower profits as a cost of doing business, increase prices overall in order to recoup the costs from everyone who shops, or figure out a legal way to soak people who don't use cash. The first option makes it harder to stay in business in an economy where margins are already razer-thin, the second involves the risk of losing customers to those who choose the first option, and the third is destined to infuriate people who can't be bothered to read your signs. I can't tell you which choice is best. Number two might be worth it if you can also balance it out with extra service.

Speaking of service, it's important to note that I'm in Oregon, and state law forbids us from pumping our own gas (and yet it's fine and dandy to run our own cash registers at the self-serve checkout lines). It's important to know that for what comes next.

As I was saying, and you can go back up and check if you don't believe me, this particular station lists two prices, one for cash and one for plastic. With most stations that do this sort of thing, their pumps are programmed to know the difference and charge accordingly. Not so here. I don't know if it's because the station's owners have never upgraded their pumps since they were a Tesoro station, or what, but their pumps are coded to the plastic price only.

The first time I went there after they started posting two prices, they explained how they are handling it. They just give you the change. So, for example, if gas is $2.50/gallon cash and $2.60/gallon plastic, and you ask for twenty bucks worth, they'll pump 7.69 gallons (or so, depending on just how precise the meter are) and give you 77ยข back, since you only actually purchased $19.23 worth of fuel.

Got all that?

I don't necessarily get my gas at the same place every time. A combination of factors come into play, including watching for the best price and where I happen to be when I realize that I really do need to fill up. As a result, quite a bit of time passed before I stopped there again, but they did still have the two prices. This time, however, the pump jockey took my cash to the register, and went on to help someone else. When I asked about my change, he apologized and said that "she" (whoever she is) had just reinstated that policy and he had forgotten. Fine, whatever. Nobody's perfect, everybody makes mistakes.

Flash forward to a couple days ago, and after an interval of several weeks, the same thing happens again. Right down to the same excuse. And I drive by there regularly; like I said, it's near where I live. That's when I realized what was going on. They're relying on the regularly demonstrated idiocy of the average American shopper to drive off after handing over the cash, thinking the transaction complete. In effect, what they're doing is option two, but pretending it's option three in the hopes people won't catch on.

Now that I've caught on, do I intend to stop giving them my patronage? Absolutely not! I plan to return as needed and when circumstances permit, because it amuses me to know that, with me at least, they'll not be getting away with it.

Besides, it's not like they filled the tank when I told them a specific amount. That's the real deal-breaker for me.

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