4 Ways Gas Pumps Screw You

There’s 4 main ways a gas pump can screw you over:

1. Meter Jump
You go to put gas in but before you pull the nozzle switch, there’s already a dollar amount on the meter. This usually happens because some part inside is worn out. When you hit the activation switch it’s supposed to recharge itself with a bit of gas, but when meter jump occurs, the meter is charging you for the gas that’s charging the system.

2. Meter Creep
The nozzle clicks off because it thinks the tank is full, but the machine keeps adding pennies even though no gas is flowing.

3. Short Volume
Can happen for a number of reasons, but essentially the pump is not pumping as much gas it says it is.

4. Big Sign, Little Price, But Little Sign, Bigger Price This is when the big sign facing the road shows a lower price than is on your pump or on your receipt. With gas prices fluctuating the way they do these days, this usually happens because the gas station didn’t get a chance to change the sign yet.

The reality is that consumers are not getting shafted at the pump that much, and of them, the first three we mentioned are the most common.

    Stats from the Arizona Department of Weights and Measures:

    66,000 fuel devices statewide
    22,000 device inspections per year
    9% of inspections find actionable problems
    1-2% of the inspections find pumps shorting the customers

“Meters and gas pumps wear out and parts need to be replaced, a gas pump is a pretty complicated piece of equipment,” said Steve Meissner, Communications Director of the Arizona Department of Weights and Measures.

However, If you notice any discrepancy, you should bring it up with the store. If they don’t fix the problem or you don’t like their answer, contact your local weights and measures department. They will take complaints by phone, email or letter. They investigate every complaint and if you request it, they will let you know the exact results of their inspection.

How do you know if there’s a discrepancy? One commenter Verdigris use this technique: “…fill your tank by stopping at the 10 gallon mark. If the price is ten times the amount of 1 gallon, you know you aren’t getting screwed. I tend to keep my eye on the price when it gets around 10 gallons every time I fill up.”

RELATED: Keeping the pumps on time [Contra Costa Times]

(Photo: whatatravisty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. gzusrox says:

    too bad i live in oregon and cant pump my own gas!!

  2. zarex42 says:

    I’d like to see some evidence to back this up. Gas pumps have to go through regular certification and tests to remain usable. There will be a sticker right on the pump showing when it was last checked.

  3. Pete Gaines says:

    Here in Lawrence, KS, all the stations have gone to pre-pay. There’s one station that shaves a penny off of every transaction – you give the cashier $40, the pump shuts off at $39.99. This has happened to me twice.

  4. dako81 says:

    @PeteJayhawk: Probably because it can’t meter a cent of gas anymore since it’s such a small amount. By winter it’ll be a few molecules…

  5. RodAox says:

    well other than number 4 how am i suppose to know if these are happening or not ?

  6. RStewie says:

    I was getting gas the other day, the price on the SIGN was one thing, the price on the PUMP was another, and the price they CHARGED was another. The cashier refused to give refunds. (Roughly 20 cents/gal)

    I wrote a letter to my Attn Gen, who forwarded it to the Commerce Dept.

    I’ve never gone back, and I’ve told my entire family and all my friends to avoid it.

    RaceTrac on 231 N in Montgomery AL.

  7. RStewie says:

    I also was shorted once in Huntsville. It said my tank was full, but I ran out of gas after only driving an hour. It was a Chevron on 565 toward US65. I thought with the reputable name, it would be ok, but…not so much.

  8. snoop-blog says:

    too much bold hurts my eyes!

  9. Pixel says:

    When I worked at a gas station in CT we had to be careful when we changed the signs. State law said the pumps always had to sell gas at or below the price on the signs, never above. And apparently the fine was pretty substantial. So if prices were rising the signs got changed, then the pumps, and if prices were dropping the pumps got changed, then the signs.

    I remember we were mid price-increase when one customer coming in yelling and screaming that the pump didn’t match the sign. Once I pointed out he was paying 2 cents less than the sign and asked if he wanted to wait for us to raise it he shut up pretty quick.

  10. Verdigris says:

    You can check all of these if you fill your tank by stopping at the 10 gallon mark. If the price is ten times the amount of 1 gallon, you know you aren’t getting screwed. I tend to keep my eye on the price when it gets around 10 gallons every time I fill up.

  11. AaronZ says:

    Just last week I filled up at a Hess station where the posted (sign) price was different from the pump price.
    The sign price was 4 cents more!!

    I felt like I got a deal. :) (Then realized, I’m still paying $4.01 for gas and felt less elated.)

  12. Necroscope says:

    I have heard of pumps that ‘short’ customers, what I never hear of are pumps that ‘long’ the customer. You know, give you more gas than they measure. If shorting was due to pumps being complicated pieces of equipment that have parts that wear out, then the law of averages means roughly half of them should give you more gas than you pay for.

  13. dry-roasted-peanuts says:

    How about this little nugget:

    91 Octane – – 86 Octane – – 96 Octane

    and then the prices disappear as soon as you pick up the nozzle. Granted, this hasn’t happened to me, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some people just assumed that the prices went from smallest to largest.

  14. Necroscope says:

    @Verdigris: That just means it is charging you for what it measured, not measuring what you got. Try filling a one gallon recepticle and seeing how close to one gallon the pump displays.

  15. Aristeia says:

    Another way you can get “screwed” is if the cut-off mechanism malfunctions. Usually it works fine, but last time I filled up, I wasn’t paying attention and it poured a fairly significant amount of gas out the side of my car. It was gross, dangerous, and costly. Yeesh.

    Still, this is just another reason to pay attention when filling up gas.

  16. LoganAdams says:

    I grew up working at my family’s full-service gas station as an attendant. I’d pump the gas, wash windows, check oil and tires, etc. Anyway, one of the things we’d always have to watch for on the entirely mechanical gas pumps was when you’d turn it on to start another transaction but the counter wouldn’t reset at all after the previous fillup. We made damned sure to watch it get to zero every time because we knew if one person went around saying we were cheating people, it would do incredible damage to our business because it was a small town.

    So when I hear about stations that rig their pumps, I can’t help but shake my head in disgust.

    • Paperclippe says:

      @LoganAdams: When my dad was a kid, he pumped gas for chump change. One day he noticed that the old meters (the wind-by-hand) didn’t reset all the way, so he would pocket the extra change. By the end of the week, he had a stereo, and by the end of the month, a dirt bike.

      By the end of the year, the gas station got sued and my dad got off scott-free. Now, I don’t condone it, but that’s pretty awesome, in my book.

      Then again, this was when gas was 0.75 a gallon.

  17. Platypus Man says:

    @dry-roasted-peanuts: If I remember correctly, that happened to me shortly after I started driving. The numbers didn’t disappear, but they got me with the order.

    And to the people talking about being forced to pre-pay, I’ve used pay-at-the-pump since I got a debit card. I don’t see any reason not to do so.

  18. Corydon says:

    @dry-roasted-peanuts: To add to the confusion, I noticed on a recent road trip through the northern plains states (i.e. big ethanol country) that the lowest octane isn’t always the lowest price.

    In many cases the 87 (or 85) octane has no ethanol and is about ten cents per gallon more than the 89 octane with 10% ethanol.

  19. Sian says:

    Do #1 and #2 even happen with digital pumps? I can see that happening with the old-school rolling number pumps but I have certainly never seen that behavior in the last, oh, fifteen years.

  20. ssurfer321 says:

    I got caught paying $.05 more per gallon because I didn’t pay cash :( I drive a F150 and can’t carry THAT much cash on me!

  21. Sidecutter says:

    “4. Big Sign, Little Price, But Little Sign, Bigger Price This is when the big sign facing the road shows a lower price than is on your pump or on your receipt. With gas prices fluctuating the way they do these days, this usually happens because the gas station didn’t get a chance to change the sign yet. “

    This is MASSIVELY illegal, at least here. The requirement I am aware of is that, if you raise the price, you MUST raise the price on the sign for 30 minutes before you can raise the price on the pumps. If lowering the price, it must be lowered on the pumps 30 minutes before lowering it on the signs.

  22. Sorshha says:

    And this is why i love New Jersey… I just sit in my car and let someone who knows what they are doing, pump my gas.
    I might break a nail or something, yaknow?

  23. SleepingSheeple says:

    The gas station down the road from me has one big sign out front that always shows a very low price. But at the pump, the cost is 0.20 cents per gallon more. The owners said there is a notice (in tiny letters) that the price on the sign is the lowest price for gas within a ten-mile radius.

    Totally illegal, but it’s not like the government cares.

  24. ZeGerman says:

    I had a pump slowly start creeping (no gas flow) as soon as I activated it (nozzle not in car). I ended up filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

  25. floraposte says:

    @Corydon: That’s very common in farm country around here, and I think it’s a bit of a legal dodge–the advertised lowest price, which usually undercuts the local bottom rate, is proudly displayed, with small print saying “Premium” underneath it. People then fill up on the lowest tier of gas and pay twenty cents higher per gallon than they would elsewehere.

    It’s got signage so I bet it’s legal, but it’s bucking convention enough that I suspect it makes them a tidy pile of extra money.

  26. dirtleg says:

    @LoganAdams: As I recall, you had to crank the reset lever when you removed the nozzle and before turning on the pump. It was fairly foolproof if you were familiar with the machines at all. It was the occasional, unscrupulus pump jockey that would not reset before pumping your gas that made all the guys look bad. That’s why I always pumped my own or got out to watch if someone was doing it for me.
    As for the signs, I remember gas wars of the sixties and early seventies when the signs were changing all day long a penny or two at a shot. Till they would all level out at some ridiculously low price for a couple of days. I remember filling my gas tank, buying cigarettes and a Coke and getting change back for my $5 bill.

  27. harvey_birdman_attorney_at_law says:

    Not a screw, but I hate, hate, hate, HATE pumps that slow down 50 cents before you finish pumping. This is the 21st, century, you can easily design a pump that shuts off exactly when it is supposed to, or at most $.05 before the final dollar amount. I swear this is done just to piss people off into leaving early. Whoever invented this feature, PLEASE DIE.

  28. Inglix_the_Mad says:


    They’re idiots. At the fuel company I worked for previously there was a motto:

    “Price is going up? Outside / in. Price going down? Inside / out.”

    Basically it mean if the price was heading up, change the big sign first, followed by the computers that control the gas pumps. The opposite applied to the price going down. Either way, you paid less than the big sign at the pumps for the duration of the price change.

  29. @Inglix_the_Mad: Smart. Let’s make that a law.

  30. PlayerX says:

    I used to work at a couple of gas stations for a long time, so I can answer the big sign/little sign dealie:

    Basically, we’d lower the price on the pump before lowering the sign’s price so we wouldn’t be swarmed before we were ready; similarly, we’d raise the price on the sign before the pump to wait for the people on the forecourt to finish pumping up before we’d change the pump price.

    Sign price does not equal pump price. Always check the pump.

  31. PlayerX says:

    @PeteJayhawk: You should be able to go back inside and collect the difference. If the cashier doesn’t want to give you back your penny, you should call the manager.

  32. PlayerX says:

    @RStewie: Your guage might be malfunctioning. Check your car’s owner’s manual to see what the tank capacity is. 55-60 litres is typical of a six-cylinder family sedan.

  33. PlayerX says:

    @dry-roasted-peanuts: The only prices that should disappear from the pump are the grades of gas you aren’t buying.

  34. pegr says:

    I got bit with the inside/outside pricing game once. Instead of causing a major fuss, as I often do, I simply grabbed a king size Snickers bar and declared “That should cover it!” and walked out.

    I kept my eye on the rearview mirror all the way home looking for members of the local law enforcement community, but so far, so good!

  35. RaoulSTL says:

    Just want to throw this out there about #1

    Most newer pumps have the hose hanging from the top of the pump, this is so gravity can help push all the gas out of the hose (there’s usually 4 hoses inside hoses on the inside) into your car.

    The gas you are getting is _not_ registered from the handle that’s in your car, but from the top of the pump. When you pick your grade, or flip the handle up, the pump is now ‘on’ and releases the gas. With higher and higher gas prices, the amount of gas it releases into the hose is the same, it just costs more.

    I’ve been in the gas station business for 10 years, every time one of our pumps is malfunctioning in terms of gas counting (which is once every couple years), they always error towards the consumer. I.E it thinks it gave you 2 gallons but really gave you 2.1.

  36. the_gank says:

    Another way they screw consumers is when you pay inside and when it gets to the last dollar that you paid for, the gas stops pumping at a lesser speed when it reaches about 55 cents before the last dollar runs out……In my opinion, it’s better to pay with card @ d pump [which also creeps out due to identity theft stuff]….that way, u get exact quantity of gas u paid for…

  37. rabiddachshund says:

    @Sidecutter: 30 minutes? that makes no sense.

  38. dontknoa says:

    Actually when you pay with credit card, it will estimate the last drop. Usually thats about a 25 cent jump in the price. Next time you pay with a card, watch the pump display closely when the auto shutoff clicks off or when you push the lever to turn it off. It wont slow down, but the gallons and price will jump up.

  39. When I worked at a gas station we removed the issue with #4 by changing the sign first if we were raising, or chaning the pump first when lowering. A couple of times I even yelled out the door, “Lowering the price, stop pumping and wait for me to finish or you’ll get the higher price.”

    Somehow that still managed to piss some customers off.

  40. 9% of inspections find actionable problems
    1-2% of the inspections find pumps shorting the customers

    Actionable problems include underpumping AND overpumping. I know none of us will complain about overpumping, but in terms of accidential calibration problems the issues with overpumping are just as common as underpumping. In terms of mechanical failures (wear and tear) underpumping will occur more often than overpumping because the internal mechanism of the pump is leaking and fails to deliver a full squirt (pump) of gas.

    Looking at the State’s numbers, underpumping is roughly 15-20% of the actionable problems. I wonder how many of those actionable problems are overpumping?

  41. @valarmorghulis:

    OR just shut the station down for 5 minutes, perform every task and then reopen. Station up the road from me had a sign on the pumps saying “closing at 10:25 PM for maintenance, reopening at 10:30 PM”. I wonder what kind of maintenance only takes 5 minutes?

  42. TheDude06 says:

    1-2%?! that seems like a hell of a high amount to me! With a service station having between 4-12 pumps each! that could work out to 1:10 stations shorting you

  43. racermd says:

    RE: Pumps that slow down…

    Whether or not you pre-pay inside or use your CC at the pump, the pump will slow down for the last $.50 or so in an effort to more accurately stop at the limit. Remember, most pay-at-the-pump systems have an upper limit imposed by the station’s owner/operator – usually $75.

    Yes, it’s annoying. Unfortunately, there’s very little you (as a consumer) can do about it. However, if you’re pumping $75 worth of gas via PATP – even at $4/gal – the extra few seconds doesn’t feel so long.

  44. psm321 says:

    I had the opposite of #4 happen to me once… the price at the pump / price charged was like 8 cents lower than the price advertised on the big sign.

  45. benmlee says:

    Don’t know about the rest of the country, but here in CA, pumps are calibrated by the government official using a 5 gallon container. They check at 5 gal and 10 gal. Some gas station owner modified the computer chip on the pump so that they charge you more gas from 1-3 gallons. Pump would then slow down from 3-5 gallons so that the state calibration container would show the correct pump reading. Took a while for the state to figure out why there were so many complaints.

  46. monkeybars says:

    @RStewie: Uh, if your meter said it was full and you didn’t pump a full tank, that’s a problem with your car. If it didn’t say it was full but you pumped a full tank, and you drove away and then ran out of gas, that’s your own fault man… You should have turned right around when the meter didn’t go up.

  47. 8pozzum says:

    @Corporate-Shill: Actionable problems can include a lot things besides volumetric problems: Missing or unreadable octane stickers, brand name missing from gas pump, un-sealed but accurate meters, display problems, failure to notify the proper authorities when installing a new device, etc.

    When I used to work with W&M I saw about equal numbers of meters being short and long. Most of those were within +/- 6-10 cu. in., which is about a 0.5-0.9% discrepancy (~0.5% is within tolerance). I’m not going to say I didn’t have a few “holy shit this meter is way off” moments, but they were pretty rare.

  48. I like it when the gas pump sticks just the tip of the nozzle in moves in a circular mo.. -what’s that? Oh! screws you that way. Financially you mean…
    …that could’ve been embarrassing.

  49. TheSeeker says:

    @ssurfer321: “I got caught paying $.05 more per gallon because I didn’t pay cash :( I drive a F150 and can’t carry THAT much cash on me!”

    Five cents more per gallon? That’s $2.50 if you have a 50 gallon tank which I doubt you have. If that is hurting you, you’d better check your finances.

  50. allstarecho says:

    The Murphy USA stations used to be bad about “Big Sign, Little Price, But Little Sign, Bigger Price”. That’s why all of them across the country removed the price signs that used to be on the front of the WalMart buildings. I used to be a manager of one of their stores (don’t laugh, I made $52,000 a year between salary and commission).

    Anyway, Murphy USA cut hours which usually meant during the day, the manager was also running the register with no help and he/she couldn’t get up to the building to change the prices. No big deal to the manager if the prices at the pump were lower than the price on the Walmart building. Customers certainly wouldn’t bitch or complain nor would they offer to pay the higher price shown on the WalMart building. But if the price on the WalMart building was lower than the price at the pump, customers would raise hell. All I could tell ’em was “Look, as you can see, I’m the only one working and I can’t leave to go change the price signs. Whatever price the pump shows and the 3 huge signs on the top of our canopy shows, that’s how much the gas is. While I’d hate to lose your business, if the price is a problem, you’ll need to go somewhere else. I don’t set the prices, I just sell the product. The prices come into our register, canopy signs and pumps via satellite and I don’t know when they are coming or how much they will be, they just come automatically when home office in Arkansas sends ’em.”

    Keep in mind that Murphy USA is not owned in any way, shape or form by WalMart so unless you had a really cool WalMart store manager who could get one of his/her employees to go out and change the signs for you after you call the manager and ask, the signs just had to stay that way until they could be changed.

    So, Murphy USA decided after Hurricane Katrina, to take all the signs down off of WalMart buildings. The price fluctuations during Katrina were a bitch and sometimes the price would change every 10, 20, 30 minutes. I know some states have laws regarding how many times a price can be changed but not here in Mississippi.

  51. forgottenpassword says:

    I have only noticed one pump that jumped up a couple of cents before I even stuck the nozzle in my car. It pissed me off a bit because I wondered if this happened most times & maybe i never noticed before. At this same station I noticed someone scratched into the pump face the words “gas rape” (the reason I got my avatar). When a new station with new pumps opened up down the street & had the exact same price of gas … I switched to them.

  52. mac-phisto says:

    i was thinking about this the other day (while i waited for the yankee gas guy to come change their meter). why don’t states require a certain percentage of pumps to be changed (not just tested) every year? considering 9% of pumps in this study were incorrect in some way, shouldn’t w&m be doing more to ensure standards are followed?

    now i know that may be expensive, but here in ct they collect a “gross receipts tax” of 6% from gas station owners on ALL SALES (gas, soda, cigarettes, whatever & yes, that’s on top of all other taxes, so tax is taxed too). i think the state could set aside a portion of that windfall to pay for the change of 1-2% of pumps/year.

  53. TheresAPartyInMyPants says:

    This will get your blood pressure up:
    Exxon Mobil once again reported the largest quarterly profit in U.S. history Thursday, posting net income of $11.68 billion on revenue of $138 billion in the second quarter. That profit works out to $1,485.55 a second. That barely beat the previous corporate record of $11.66 billion, also set by Exxon in the fourth quarter of 2007.
    Excluding money set aside for a recent damage award related to the Valdez tanker spill back in 1989, Exxon made $11.97 billion in the quarter.
    So they managed to postpone almost 20 years paying damages for that fiasco, and then it was a pittance. And screwing the consumer all along the way.

  54. Geoff says:

    Wow, people really do not understand this industry AT ALL.

    My family has owned a gas station for 4 generations now, with my Dad and uncle owning their station for almost 30 years.

    You do not lose money when the pump slows down. It slows down so you don’t get more gas than you paid for, keeping the overall price you pay at the pump DOWN. If everyone got a little more than they were supposed to, prices would go up because they’d have to compensate for that.

    Secondly, articles like this, while, yeah, it’s good to know this could happen, the odds of this happening are extremely low and this really just creates a stream of FUD that makes consumers more wary than they already are and should be of station owners. Gas stations are pretty greatly scrutinized by lots of different people: their landlords, distributors, jobbers, who they franchised from if applicable, the city, the state, the department of agriculture — you piss off any one of those people and there’s more than a slap on the wrist: it can cost you money. And in a time where the profit margin is about 10-15 cents per gallon for station owners, you can’t afford to lose more money.

    And why change the pumps every so often other than calibrate them? Do you get a new car every year, or when you fuel pump or door lock breaks, you get it replaced? Each dispenser (that’s what everyone calls a pump. The pumps are actually underground) is about $5-10 thousand, maybe more if you have multiple hoses, TV screen, etc. The cost of requiring this would never be the government’s responsibility and would ultimately be borne to the station owner, which would — wait for it — INCREASE GAS PRICES.

    Yeah, gas prices suck right now, but trust me, it could be WAY worse and station owners are hurting as much as everyone else. Yes, my own mother has to pay for gas when she gets it from my dad’s station. There are no free rides in this industry. Profit margins are down and now that nearly everyone pays at the pump, few come inside to buy impulse items like candy and drinks (the high margin items) which cuts into profits further. The mechanic shop at my dad’s station is keeping them afloat. If they had to rely on gas alone, he’d have no house.

  55. Firethorn says:


    Why change out a perfectly operational pump? We still have lots of cars from the 80s and 90s going. A gasoline pump is a piece of industrial equipment. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that properly maintained older pumps fail as rarely as new pumps.

    As noted, only 1-2% were shorting the customers. The rest would probably be signage/sealing/maintenance issues as another poster mentioned.

    As for using sales tax to replace pumps – I’d say no again, that’s for the city’s purposes, not to pay the gas station to replace it’s pumps artificially quickly.

  56. krom says:

    I’ve caught a penny-creeper pump, and reported it to the attendant. Another customer said I should call the local news station’s consumer watch line, but it didn’t seem significant enough for their attention. Frankly, the 5 or so cents I got ripped off didn’t seem like much compared to what I was paying for gas (and it was about 2/3 then what it is now).

    The only time a penny creeper is a problem is if you don’t hang up the pump shortly after it stops. Since I stand by the pump and don’t top off, this isn’t usually a problem for me.

  57. cjnewbs says:

    Having worked at a petrol station I have a few things I would like to point out. The hose is ALWAYS full of fuel before you start pumping. The only time it has no fuel in is when it is being fitted, and when this happens the engineer will hold the lever open until fuel flows out the nozzle. Shaking the hose to “get all the rest of it out the hose”as some customer claim happens does not work.

    The nozzle will only dispense fuel when the line is under pressure, the trigger is pulled, and the overfill vacuum valve has not been triggered. The reason people think this happens is because if you hold the nozzle upright and pull the trigger slowly until the nozzle fills with fuel you will actually find it can hold a small cupful of fuel. This gives the illusion of fuel still flowing after you release the trigger.

    The gauge in your car is no-where near as accurate as a fuel pump. In you car it has the markings Empty, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, full. In the UK at least our pumps are calibrated to pump a maximum of -0.5 to +1%. All garages should have a 20L calibration can. I think the calibration can we used was marked to 50cc over and under the 20L mark, and was reported for maintenance if it went outside of this. Thinking about it 50cc is in fact 0.25% tolerance, extremely accurate

    If I recall correctly the reason the pump occasionally (very rarely) clicks over by a penny is due to the final calculation being preformed/slight tolerances in the pump parts.

    Another thing is the flow meter counts to 3 decimal places, however displays 2, which is why you sometimes think you are being overcharged by a penny, simple rounding. It works the other way too.

    If the display does not show £0.00 before you start pumping then don’t pull the damn trigger, its simple. If you don’t want to be charged for it then tell the attendant before you fill up, otherwise it just looks like you want some free fuel.