Consumer Watchdog gets PBC to look into ordinance to end confusion over gas cash and credit pricing

Consumer Watchdog found 200+ complained to state

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Consumers have complained for years about gas stations advertising one price and charging you another. A Consumer Watchdog investigation has now prompted Palm Beach County to take action.

More than 200 people complained to the State of Florida this year about confusing gas station pricing. One of the biggest issues -- cash and credit price confusion.

Big bold letters advertise the price of gas on station signs near the street.

"I look at the numbers. That's all I'm looking at," said driver Donna Kish.

However, the listed price may not be what you pay at the pump.

"You're totally misleading the public," Kish explained.

Kish feels misled when she pulls up to the pump, and finds out she'll pay a higher price for using a credit card. Under the law, gas stations don't have to warn drivers there's a difference between paying with cash or credit.

"You feel almost ripped off," said driver Andy Botwick.

While a warning is not required, many stations post signs. The trick is finding them. Stations use different words, and different placement to warn you about different pricing. 

"Clearly it's too small," said Botwick.

The warnings are not even consistent among gas stations. Take the Mobil station on Lindell Blvd and Federal Highway in Boca Raton. From the street, it's not clear if the station charges more for credit.

Four miles away, another Mobil station warns consumers that the advertised price is only for cash buyers.

"All we are asking for them is to be fair," said Botwick.

A Consumer Watchdog investigation found drivers have been requesting fairness since 2009 when gas was $2.07.

Consumers told the Palm Beach County Consumer Affairs Division, "I am sick and tired of gas stations doing this," and "These people should be stopped."

For years, investigators told consumers "the difference in pricing is allowed under the county ordinance" so nothing nothing was done.

"I would venture to say a lot of commissioners have been snookered into the wrong price themselves," said Botwick.

Other counties pass ordinances regulating gas station signs

Commissioners in Broward County were fed up with the cash and credit pricing and took action passing an ordinance a year ago that requires gas stations to post the maximum price for gas. That way, when you pull up to the pump you will be surprised if you get a discount rather than surprised if you are charged a higher price.

Enforcement is complaint driven. Stations are first given a warning, then fined $250 and $500 on a repeat offense.

"Paying for gas should not be guess work. Now when you see a posted price at the gas station, you'll know that's the most you'll be charged. It should do away with the bait and switch practice of advertising one price if you pay with cash and a higher non-advertised price if you plan to use a credit or cash card," said Broward County Commissioner Lois Wexler.

The county said it's issued 9 citations out of 93 complaints. One shop has been cited three times for violating the ordinance.

Miami-Dade County also has an ordinance that addresses cash and credit pricing. The signs can post the minimum price, and the condition of the sale if it's a cash or credit price.

Palm Beach County has an ordinance, but it does not specifically address the cash and credit issue. Commissioner Hal Valache took action on the issue after the Consumer Watchdog began asking questions.

"I think it's time that we really address it," said Valache.

The Palm Beach County Commission will investigate the issue and consider an ordinance to regulate cash and credit pricing. The county will get input from cities, and allow them to opt in or out of any proposed legislation.

Gas stations say they have to charge for the convenience of credit to cover the cost of swipe fees charged by the banks.

Commissioner Valache understands, but wants the confusion to end.

"Uniformity is exactly what we need to have," Valache said.

Gas station trade group responds

The Florida Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association said it's working with the state to get more uniform signs, but it's expensive to change the roadside signs especially for a mom and pop station whose profit margins are already small. The association said 58% of convenience stores in Florida are mom and pop shops.

The trade group said a station makes more money from a cup of coffee than a 12 gallon fill-up.

It feels it's anti-competitive for an ordinance restricting which gas price a store posts on its sign. It feels stations should be able to advertise that they pass on the savings with using cash to customers. The agency said the real issue is with the credit card companies.

The agency feels 8 or 10 inch cash letters suffice and should make it clear to drivers that the station offers a cash discount.

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