Buying gas with plastic? Look out

Buy gasoline with cash — instead of a credit card — and you could save as much as 10 cents per gallon.

That’s the offer some South Florida gas retailers are offering to consumers because of high credit card fees.

But not everybody thinks this is a good deal. Some customers are confused by the signs advertising the cash discounts. Consumer officials say it’s unclear whether the signs are legal, and the Florida Attorney General’s office says it is investigating complaints involving several gas stations.

Bob Hitt, of the Palm Beach County Consumer Affairs office, said the office has received several inquiries and consumer complaints related to gas cash-discount offers. “There’s a lot of confusion about the law,” Hitt said. “We have asked the attorney general’s office to clarify the law for us.”

Under state law, merchants can give consumers a cash discount for products, but can’t charge them extra when they choose to pay with a credit card, said Larry Kaplan, assistant director for Broward County Consumer Affairs Division. “We can say that as long as the cash price is advertised and disclosed as a cash price prior to the sale,” said Attorney General spokeswoman Sandi Copes, “it is possible this may not be in violation of the statute.”

Kaplan added: “They [merchants] must advertise the cash price and credit card price as well. As long as the disclosure is obvious to the customer [it’s legal].”

Some gas stations treat debit cards as credit cards, but a few — such as Shell — treat them as cash. And it’s unclear whether the law considers debit card transactions as credit cards or cash.

Consumers have filed complaints with local and state officials alleging that gas stations are imposing a surcharge for the use of a credit card, a second-degree misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $2,500.

And the Florida Attorney General’s office says it is investigating two Plantation gas stations after receiving 21 complaints, alleging that retailers are imposing a surcharge to consumers paying with credit cards.

“We have been receiving other complaints on other gas stations and are investigating as well,” Copes said.

Terence McElroy, a spokesperson with Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said state regulators are also tracking a growing number of gas station consumer complaints.

“I can tell you anecdotally that we have seen an increase in the number of complaints related to surcharges,” said McElroy.

The Attorney General’s office is investigating the Nob Hill Mobil at 1862 Nob Hill Road and a Shell gas station at Broward Boulevard and University Drive that recently advertised an eight cents per gallon cash discount.

Consumers have claimed they were charged extra for using credit cards to pay for the fuel.

John R. Rudolph, owner of Double J Gas Station, the company that owns both gas stations, denies allegations that he’s charging a surcharge.

“People just assume that we put a surcharge to the card, but what we’re doing is giving a cash discount,” Rudolph said.

Tanja Heyer, manager of Sunoco in Boca Raton, said many customers have also complained since they began offering the cash discount two months ago.

State inspectors, she said, have visited the gas station at Camino Real and Third Avenue after consumers filed complaints.

At Sunoco, a decal plastered on the gas pumps tell customers of the deal: “Cash discount on fuel! ATM available inside. Save 10 cents per gallon.”

But to Ellie Daniels, of Boca Raton, the discount is meaningless.

“I wish I could take advantage of this but I don’t carry that much cash with me,” said Daniels, adding that it takes about $50 to fill up her tank. “It’s easier for me to use the credit card and get points.”

Francisco Averdaño said the discount sounds like a great deal.

“But I usually don’t pay attention and especially if I’m using my credit card,” said Averdaño, of Weston, as he was fueling gasoline at the Shell gas station in Plantation recently.

Jim Eng said he takes advantage of the cash discount.

“Especially if I’m going to save 10 cents per gallon,” said Eng, of Boca Raton.

Rudolph said inspectors with Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Bureau of Petroleum Inspection have visited his gas stations several times to investigate complaints. He changed the language of advertising to meet law requirements at inspectors request.

Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

Mc Nelly Torres can be reached at or 954-356-4208 or 561-243-6600, ext. 4208.

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