State Inspectors - the Shoppers’ Watchdog!

“I called my inspector and he stopped by on his way to another business. He was very helpful,” said the owner of a small specialty grocery store.  He shared with me his concern about the impact of recent budget cuts on state inspectors.

“If inspectors are cut back,” he said “I am not so much worried about my shop, but my competition.” Not everyone is scrupulous in their business practices. Sometimes consumers get burned.

Just last year a man in St. Croix County was convicted for stealing heating fuel from customers. The man, John Rassbach of Rassbach Oil, was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay $165,000 to his customers.

In Wisconsin, the Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) is home to inspectors charged with protecting consumers and business alike. As you watch the deli worker weigh fish, the check-out clerk scan groceries or the gas pump fill your tank, your state tax dollars provide for an inspector who ensures ‘you get what you pay for’.

State inspectors visit stores and gas stations to make sure the scanners, scales, pumps and products are all accurately weighed, measured and priced. 

 “Our inspectors protect buyers and sellers in nearly all sales of goods,” said Michelle Reinen, Director of the Wisconsin Bureau of Consumer Protection, which operates the state’s weights and measures inspection program. Last year these inspectors tested more than 29,000 items for proper pricing; over 30,000 gas pumps and almost 9,000 retail scales last year.

These inspectors are shoppers’ watchdogs. Most of the time scales and pumps check out accurate; but not all the time.

For example, almost 97% of price scans tested were accurate. But of those weights and measures tested, price scanners were the most likely scale to be inaccurate.

Retailers can pay a fine for inaccurate scales. Fines netted in 2010 included fifteen civil forfeitures. Two thirds of the offenses were for ‘short weight seafood.’ So watch the weight of that fish! Other violations include scanners and fuel.

I wondered how these violations were discovered. I learned from DATCP the process followed. Take fuel pumps for example; inspectors show up at the fuel pump unannounced. They check first to make sure signs are readable and display the current price per gallon for all grades of fuel. Inspectors look for tampering with the gas pump, the credit card swipe machine and the seals. Inspectors pump five gallons of each grade of fuel at every pump and watch for ‘skipping’ of numbers or advancing of numbers after the pump is shut off. The inspectors have the power to order an immediate shut-down of an inaccurate pump. When a pump passes inspection, inspectors provide an official state-issued seal. Look for this seal the next time you are standing at a pump.

When you are headed out shopping our state watchdogs have some advice.

“Watch carefully at the checkout to make sure you’re being charged accurately,” said Sandy Chalmers, Administrator of the Trade and Consumer Protection Division. “Wisconsin law requires stores to charge the lowest advertised price and refund any overcharge.”

Ms. Chalmers has some suggestions for shoppers:

    • Write down prices or special sales as you shop.
    • Bring store ads with you.
    • Watch display screens at the check out as items are being scanned.
    • Speak up if you think you are being overcharged.
    • Ask for any appropriate refund while you are still in the store.
    • Ask about the store’s pricing error policy.

If you suspect someone is not weighing correctly; a scanner is inaccurate or the gasoline pump is registering more gallons than it's actually giving, call the Division of Consumer Protection at 800-422-7128.  Hardworking state inspectors will be there to help you or your business.