Monday, July 07, 2008

Officials look out for fuel fraud

By The Associated Press
Monday, July 7, 2008 - Bangor Daily News

LEWISTON, Maine - Homeowners Paul and Linda Martin thought that $300 for two cords of green firewood seemed too good to be true. And the stack that was delivered seemed small.

State worker Carl Blanche informed the Auburn couple that their instincts were right. After making measurements and punching numbers, Blanche delivered the news that they had received only 1.13 cords of wood. He promised to call the seller out of Peru.

"Is this bad? Yeah, this is bad. Have I seen worse? Oh, yeah," said Blanche, who works for the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Quality Assurance and Regulation.

Blanche suspects many people don’t know he exists, but his job is to make sure firewood companies and gas stations don’t short customers.

With fuel prices high, public complaints are up fourfold over last year, mostly from consumers who think they’ve been ripped off by a wood dealer or at the fuel pump.

"We’re all behind the eight ball trying to keep up," said Division Director Hal Prince, who has 17 consumer protection inspectors. Currently, only three of them focus on weights and measures.

Since 2007, firewood calls have increased dramatically, Prince said. As heating oil has doubled in price, more people have gotten into the firewood business. And some of the newcomers don’t realize that the state regulates the industry.

A standard cord should measure 4-by-4-by-8-feet stacked, or 128 cubic feet. A "thrown cord" can be a little less: 115 cubic feet.

Blanche, whose turf stretches loosely from Waterville to Kittery, said if an errant firewood dealer makes good right away, then it’s case closed. If there’s a pattern or particularly severe offense, he will forward information to the Attorney General’s Office.

Since 2006, the state has sued two wood sellers. Both agreed to civil penalties in the thousands of dollars, in addition to restitution, without admitting wrongdoing.

"We haven’t been able to get back the money. On the other hand, they’re not selling anymore," said Assistant Attorney General James McKenna.

On a recent day, Blanche wrapped up his work in Naples, where he performed a surprise check at a gas station after a complaint from a customer.

Blanche introduced himself to owner David McGowan and brought a pair of $1,800 metal measuring containers over to the pumps. Then he pumped five gallons of regular from the hose in question. It produced just a hair over five true gallons.

"So we’re golden. I knew we would be," said McGowan.

Despite its actions against firewood companies, the Attorney General’s Office hasn’t sued a gas station for chronically shorting customers, according to a spokesman.

Prince said his office gets between five and 10 calls a day, mostly from people concerned about gasoline. Motorists have complained about pumps that seem to jump up as much as 50 cents before the gas starts flowing and gallons that don’t seem like true gallons.

A lot of old pumps in Maine couldn’t handle the move to $4 a gallon, Prince said. And it’s not legal to sell by the half-gallon, a common fix.

"A good number of complaints we’re getting are from consumers who don’t realize it was in half-gallons," he said. "It’s a rude surprise to them."

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