Don’t get pumped up about great gas prices until you read the small print

Rick Hudnett recently pulled into a Chevron station near his home in Orlando. He wishes he hadn’t.

The $2.41 price per gallon was a few cents lower than average, so he assumed he had found a bargain. And he did, except for one teensy detail. When he swiped his credit card, Hudnett saw that the rate had jumped to $2.45. He asked an employee why.

“The clerk mentioned that the rate advertised is only for those who have a Chevron credit card,” says Hudnett, a marketing executive based in Orlando. “Once he pointed out the tiny sentence under the advertised price on the corner sign and it indicated that particular price was only for Chevron credit card holders, I knew he got me.”

Hudnett’s not the only one who feels that way. With the summer driving season over, many motorists are scratching their heads as they review their gas receipts. Simply put, they paid more than they expected. Did they get duped?

A Chevron representative said a “vast majority” of its service stations are independently owned and operated, and that most states also regulate the display of motor fuel prices on signs and dispensers at gas stations.

“It is the responsibility of Chevron-branded retailers to investigate and comply with all applicable legal requirements,” said Braden Reddall, a Chevron spokesman. “We do not track how many elect to offer multi-tiered pricing.”

Chevron’s Web site prominently offers 3-cents-per-gallon fuel credits when you use one of its credit cards. It is less clear about how it advertises the card’s benefits to motorists who may be looking for a low price.

Hudnett, for his part, thinks it wasn’t clear enough.

“I refuse to buy gas from that location again,” he says.

Gas price shenanigans aren’t new, but I’m hearing more complaints about them. Maybe it’s because American motorists drove 1.54 trillion miles in the first half of 2015, beating the previous record, 1.5 trillion, set in 2007, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

The schemes include price misrepresentations, restrictive terms and conditions that force you to use a particular payment method and — in some cases — outright fraud.

Judy Colbert, a Glen Burnie, Md.-based writer, tells the story of a friend who saw a sign for $2.53 gas at an independent station in Waldorf, Md., a few weeks ago. When he checked his receipt, he found the rate had jumped to $2.69. He was upset but wasn’t going to drive back to the station to complain.

“Two weeks later, the police called my friend for details,” she says. “Apparently, the guy who worked at the station pocketed the difference and the rest of it, too, and fled the country.”

But a majority of gas-price hijinks don’t result in an arrest. I know, because I’ve been tracking this issue since 2012, when I became ensnared in a deceptive pricing scheme at an Arco station in Oregon.

At the time, fuel prices were pushing $4 a gallon, so everyone was looking for a way to save. And I thought I’d hit the jackpot. The station was offering gas a full 10 cents lower than the competition. But as I prepared to swipe my card, a gas station employee approached me.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Our credit card machine isn’t working.”

No problem. I walked into the station and handed the cashier my credit card. That’s when I saw the sign. Arco accepted only debit cards, which added a 50-cent “transaction” fee. In my case, it would have negated the savings on the gas. How clever.

A year later, while driving through California, I encountered a similar bait-and-switch, this time at a Safeway in Willits, Calif. The price was a then-reasonable $3.87 per gallon. But as I rolled closer, I saw the price was available only to Safeway card members. All others had to pay 10 cents a gallon extra.

I remember confronting the employee about the price difference. How could Safeway prominently advertise gas at one price that was available to only a select few?

She told me, as a teacher explains to a new student, how earlier that year “the credit card companies” had raised their fees and that Safeway had to pass the costs along to customers.

Regulators are slow to catch up with these advertising tricks. An Oregon jury recently sided with consumers in a case against BP West Coast Products, which also operated numerous Arco-branded stations. The jury said the stations charged more for gas than the amount registered at the pump and failed to properly disclose its prices when it charged a 35-cent fee to consumers who used debit cards to pay.

You have to be vigilant. One of the newest gas-price scams is the “with car wash” rate. That’s when a below-market price is displayed, usually for regular unleaded gas, with the phrase “with car wash” in small print. In fact, the Mobil station around the corner from my house shows its gas prices this way. Without a car wash, the price is 20 cents higher.

With fuel prices near historic lows and fewer drivers on the road now that summer is wrapping up, expect to see more price discrepancies. Look at the rate before you pump, then review the receipt after you’re done fueling. You may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Have you been taken for a ride by a deceptive gas price?

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