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    Calif. to Crack Down on Faulty Price Scanners

    Convenience store association says proposed measures against retailers inappropriate.

    SAN DIEGO -- Officials in San Diego want to increase inspections of price scanners at retail stores because studies have found that scanners may be overcharging consumers as much as $100 million a year.

    "I didn't think it was this bad," said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "That's a lot of money."

    Jacob is proposing to install signs in stores that have failed scanner inspections and post information notifying consumers where to complain about overcharges, the Sand Diego Union-Tribune reported. An official with a group representing grocery and convenience stores called some of the proposed measures drastic. "Her [Jacob's] heart is in the right place, but we don't think the measures are appropriate," said Auday Arabo, president of the California Independent Grocers and Convenience Store Association.

    San Diego's inspection of pricing scanners began in 1999 at the urging of Jacob. A county inspector visits stores to check that the prices being scanned into cash registers are the prices advertised and listed on shelves. More than 53,000 items have been scanned during nearly 1,500 inspections. Overcharges were discovered on more than 1,700 items, totaling $3,178. In about 500 cases, lower prices were charged for items, totaling $1,110.

    The county estimates that for every 100 items purchased, the average consumer is overcharged for three items or more and overpays by $5.86. Based on the total retail sales in the county and the rate of overcharges, officials came up with the estimated $100 million hit to consumers.

    Some overcharges were as small as 10 cents. One was $24.20, the report said. Only about a quarter of the 2,700 convenience stores, supermarkets and department stores in the county have been checked. Officials say the overcharges appear to be unintentional errors, such as charging the regular prices rather than advertised prices. Stores that make repeated mistakes have been hit with fines ranging from $200 to $2,050. A few major chain stores have paid major settlements in cases in the county.

    To address the problem, county officials want to speed up the inspections by eliminating a "3 Strikes" program that targets violators. The program requires that once a store has been inspected and has been found to have overcharged consumers, it must be reinspected twice more before the county can impose a penalty on the store. There is only one inspector covering the whole county, and the "3 Strikes" program has prevented her from visiting more stores.

    Since the county began inspecting stores four years ago, only 24 percent of the retail businesses in the county have been inspected. At that rate, said officials, each store will only be inspected once every 17 years. By eliminating the "3 Strikes" requirement of two follow-up visits, each store could be visited about once every three years. The county also wants to increase the inspection fees charged to stores. They now range from $25 to $75, based on the number of scanners they have. Fees would rise to a range of $89 to $240.

    Arabo, of the California Independent Grocers and Convenience Store Association, criticized that proposal. "In a sense, it's almost bringing back a Scarlet letter," he said. "You're branding them almost as thieves."

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