Inspectors work to protect consumers

The Field Inspector pumps gasoline into a test measure.
The Field Inspector pumps gasoline into a test measure. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

Jonathan Biedron didn't bother complaining the first time he noticed a difference between the price he was charged for office supplies and the figure posted on the shelf.

But when it happened repeatedly — and always in the store's favor — he had had enough.

"Once is a mistake, twice is a coincidence. Three times, it's on purpose," said the Germantown lawyer, who filed a complaint with the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Weights and Measures program.

While it's not possible to say the overpricing was deliberate, Weights and Measures subsequently discovered that 11 of 24 items scanned at the store rang up incorrectly, Biedron said a program investigator told him.

Residents probably know the Weights and Measures program best by the orange stickers that its field inspectors place on gasoline pumps that have passed its accuracy tests.

Inspectors also certify scales that consumers use to weigh products in stores and check packages of meat to ensure they contain the amount listed on the labels. The inspectors also test electronic price scanners to verify that items ring up at their advertised costs.

"These are major products we purchase every day, and most customers are really feeling the pinch right now, so they want to make sure they're actually receiving what they purchase," said program manager Kenneth R. Ramsburg.

The need to establish standards for weights and measures to conduct trade and commerce was recognized by the founding fathers, Ramsburg said. George Washington had Thomas Jefferson research different systems in Europe.

But it wasn't until the early 1800s, under President John Quincy Adams, that the federal government issued standards for length, volume and mass to the states, Ramsburg said.

In Maryland, the responsibility for weighing and measuring now rests with 18 field inspectors stationed across the state. They perform regular, unannounced tests of more than 40,000 gasoline meters at stations statewide. They also drop in at manufacturing plants and retail stores — even checking the scales at the shopping mall kiosks that sell candy and cookies.

Businesses face civil penalties or even criminal charges for violations, Ramsburg said.

Most of the complaints the program receives are about gasoline — and as prices at the pump increase, Ramsburg said, so do complaints. But he said it's usually a driver's gas gauge that's inaccurate, not the gasoline pump.

During a recent visit to a gas station near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, field inspector Aaron Webb pulled the lower panel off a gas pump to check the seals on three meters.

The pump dispensed regular, midgrade and premium gas, and diesel fuel. But it had only three meters because the midgrade was a blend of regular and premium.

Webb carefully pumped five gallons into a "volumetric prover" — a measuring device — two times for each meter, and checked each time to ensure the amount was within three cubic inches of the correct measure.

He also checked for any leaks in the system and made sure the pump functioned properly, and verified that all digits were displayed properly on the pump.

"We check for leaks anywhere in the lines, anywhere in the meter, because that means the customer isn't getting what they should," said Webb, who tests pumps throughout Anne Arundel County.

Ramsburg said inspectors try to respond to complaints within 24 hours.

A Montgomery County gas station this year ended up refunding $16,000 to customers after inspectors checked out back-to-back complaints, he said.

A technician apparently set the meter incorrectly to liters instead of gallons, he said, and it took the station six to 12 hours to shut it down.

The Weights and Measures program reports that the number of errors is creeping up. Last year, about 5 percent of the nearly 20,000 products scanned by inspectors in retail stores rang up with incorrect prices, Ramsburg said.

And nearly a quarter of more than 73,000 packages weighed last year were rejected for short weight — up from only about 12 percent or 13 percent at its lowest point, he said.

Ramsburg said problems often result when stores cut staff and rely more on automation.

He said a supermarket chain, for example, might pre-program label information for meat that subtracts the weight of a specific foam tray and plastic-wrap covering. But if different packaging is substituted, the weight of the meat package will be incorrect, he said.

What should you do if you discover an error?

You could file a complaint, as Biedron did in 2007.

When he called the cashier's attention to price discrepancies, the cashier refunded the difference. But the lawyer thought the repeated differences might indicate a larger problem.

"I figured if they're doing it to me, they're doing it to other people," Biedron said.

Biedron said he contacted the regional manager of the big-box chain — who directed him back to the store manager.

At that, the lawyer searched online and discovered a fellow attorney whose website discussed similar problems. The attorney recommended Biedron contact Maryland's Weights and Measures program.

The outlet that overcharged Biedron subsequently closed, but not before Weights and Measures levied a $250 civil penalty, Ramsburg said.

"I'm not sure that's the most exciting work, but it's pretty important," Biedron said. "I'm glad somebody's doing that stuff."


For more information about MDA's Weights and Measures program, including how to file a complaint, call 410-841-5790 or go to http://www.mda.state.md.us/weights_measures/index.php.