2008-10-03 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Commentary By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

AUDREY PHEFFER AUDREY PHEFFER While energy prices have leveled off and even dropped slightly in recent weeks, many experts predict that the era of cheap energy is over. According to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the average price for a gallon of regular grade motor gasoline is more than thirty percent higher than last year and home heating oil prices rose more than fifty percent during the same period.

With prices at record high levels, consumers want to make sure they are getting every last drop of gas or oil they are entitled to receive. Many motorists question whether gas pumps dispense the correct amount and grade of gasoline. Similarly, many home heating oil customers wonder if oil suppliers are indeed delivering the correct amount of fuel. Fortunately, government safeguards are in place to ensure the accuracy of fuel delivery equipment, and consumers can help by knowing the law and reporting potential violations.

In New York City, the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) inspects on an annual basis the accuracy and quality of fuel dispensed at gasoline stations and by home heating oil delivery trucks. The Department's weight and measures staff make annual visits to every gasoline station in the City and conduct multiple inspections at stations that have violated the law in the past. Consumers can be assured that DCA's "Gas Squad" is doing its best at keeping tabs on the gasoline marketplace to prevent fraud and take solace in that fact that ninety-eight percent of the team's visits during the last fiscal year resulted in no violations. If you notice what appears to be a pricing error or pump malfunction, such as a pricing meter that starts rolling before gasoline reaches the nozzle, call 311 and ask for the Department of Consumer Affairs to file a complaint.

If you are about to fill up your home heating oil tank for the upcoming winter season, you should keep the following tips from the DCA in mind. First, always check the delivery truck to make sure it carries an up-to-date official DCA seal. The official DCA seal certifies that the truck has been inspected and is ready to dispense fuel.

If the sticker is more than one year old, contact the DCA. Be sure to keep your receipt and check to see that it shows the exact amount of oil received and the price per unit, as required by law.

Insist on a written contract that includes all costs, delivery schedule, gallons promised, services provided and any other details that have been agreed upon between the customer and the provider.

Make sure that the salesperson or manager of the distributor signs the contract before you submit payment. Check the contract for any pricechanging clauses, such as how firmly your agreement locks you in if the prices go down, how well you are protected against price increases, other hidden costs, fees or minimum purchasing requirements that may appear in the contract. If you don't like the terms, either renegotiate or seek a different distributor. Check your oil tank gauge before and after filling. Although some older gauges may be inaccurate, many can give you a rough estimate of the amount of oil you have received. Lastly, always use a reputable supplier. You can call 311 to check a retailer's history with the DCA.

For more information about gasoline and home heating oil prices, as well as helpful energy saving tips, you may want to visit the NYSERDA website at: http://www.nyserda.org/. If you suspect that a gasoline station or home heating oil supplier is not dispensing fuel properly, call 311 and ask for the Department of Consumer Affairs to file a complaint.

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