Mrs. Bisola Ayeni, a businesswoman in her early 40s confidently left her house at Egbeda (Lagos) with an almost empty tank heading for Ikeja. The red light of the fuel indicator was blinking nonstop but Ayeni knew the quantity of fuel in her tank would take her to the next available filling station where she had hoped to fill up her tank. Indeed, as she got to the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway, Ayeni drove into the filling station and told the attendant to fill her car with N5,000 worth of fuel while she rummaged her handbag to bring out the money as well as pick a call. That was her undoing.
Ayeni would tell PUNCH that she didn’t bother to look at the pump while the sale was on because she didn’t envisage any foul act, besides she knew the level a N5,000 worth of fuel would rise to on her fuel gauge. Ayeni only managed a quick glance at the meter and when she saw that it was reading, she relaxed and enjoyed her discussion on the phone.She said:
"When I finished, I looked at the pump and I saw N5,000 on the price column, I paid him and drove away. I expected the light indicating low fuel to go off and the indicator to rise, but it didn’t happen. Even if the rise in the fuel indicator would be gradual, I expected a major shift. Lo and behold, the light never went off and the indicator never rose. Oh my God, I was confused and very angry, so I turned back, while praying that the car wouldn’t run out of fuel. By the time I got to the petrol station, I was fuming.”
Ayeni said she had almost slapped the attendant who attended to her having shouted on him when the station manager came out.
“On hearing what happened, the manager gave the sales boy a resounding slap, apologized to me and ordered him to sell the fuel again, and I heard him saying the N5,000 would be deducted from his salary. We both stood by him while he sold the fuel, the gauge rose even before I left the station, which means he cheated me earlier. I still wouldn’t know how he did it,” she said.
Ayeni’s experience is common among vehicle owners, who had at one time or the other thought they had bought fuel but later found out they either bought nothing or were short-changed in terms of the quantity. A cross section of vehicle owners who spoke to our correspondent alleged that they had noticed same at one time or the other but said that there was nothing they could do since they really could not establish any foul play.
In case you once bought fuel from a filling station and it seemed like nothing was added to your fuel tank after you have left, or you felt what was sold to you wasn’t commensurate with what you paid for or expected, you may have been cheated under your close watch even with your eyes wide open. Saturday PUNCH had a revealing chat with fuel attendants of some popular filling stations in Lagos and they explained how they make quick but huge cash from unsuspecting customers.
One of them who identified himself simply as Owolabi John, while devouring a massive plate of hot and spicy pepper soup and a bottle of chilled beer Punch correspondent, Tunde Ajaja, bought for him, said he earns N10,000 as a fuel attendant. He wants to pursue a university education. There is no other help from anywhere else, as such John admitted leaving no stone unturned to take advantage of gullible customers to make some money from what he described as “the customers’ carelessness.”
“Ideally, when we resume, we take the reading on the meter on the fuel dispenser, which we call the opening meter, and when we close, we take the reading, which we also call the closing meter. Then, we multiply the difference in the readings by the cost per litre, which is the amount we deliver to the manager. If there is any surplus, it belongs to the attendant, and if there is loss, the attendant will look for money to make it up. If the shortage is a lot of money, the manager may allow that the money be deducted from the person’s salary if the person is not sacked,” he explained.
However, that surplus money may not have been a miracle or manna from heaven; it could simply be a product of manipulation by the attendants. According to John, there are different types of fuel dispensers, such as Marathon, Sanki, Eagle Star, etc, and each machine has its peculiar way of being adjusted.
“On the keyboard of some of them, where we enter the number of litres or amount, which is either in front or on the side, there is usually a button labelled ‘Recall, TIM/CAL’ or any other label, depending on the machine. The essence of the button is to enable the attendant to see the past sales. If you want to see your last ten sales, you just press Recall, then the number you want to see etc, depending on the number you want, and it shows you the amount. Beyond seeing our past sales, we use it to make money.
If I sell N2,000 worth of fuel to a customer, and the next customer also wants to buy N2,000. If I observe that the second customer Isn’t paying attention, I will sell some quantity, maybe N1,500 and press Stop or Cancel, depending on the machine press Recall, 1, then press Ok. With that, N2,000 will appear on the screen and that is what the customer will see on the meter, believing the sale is complete. This can be done in less than one second. That is one of the ways, and at the close of business I remove mine which is the excess of the actual litre sales.
Imagine if I do that for about ten customers in a day, with varying gain from each case, which depends largely on the amount of fuel the customer is buying and how sensitive the person is. I could make up to N10, 000 in one day,” he explained.
According to him, attendants could go to the extent of writing out some past sales on a paper where they can easily have a glance to know which number to recall when a customer is distracted or looks away, since many people prefer to buy based on price and not litre.
“When customers come, we observe them and see if they are tired or we try to distract them, sometimes with the help of our colleagues by engaging them in a chat or doing things that could easily distract them. As soon as they look away, if the seller has made an appreciable sale, he/she would have mastered or checked his paper to see the last time he sold that particular amount, as soon as it is possible, he will press it, and press OK. Before the customer looks back, the sale will appear complete,” John explained.
John’s revelation explained one of the ways Ayeni might have been cheated. Another fuel attendant, who simply identified himself as Owode Kabir, told PUNCH that the use of Recall or TIM button is the easiest way to make quick money because the customers would think the machine was fast, so they wouldn’t always suspect anything, even though some come back to complain.
However, Kabir stressed that not all attendants are involved in the act, but that many of them do it as long as there is opportunity and that in some cases, they settle the station manager at the close of work if they are able to make some money, which they do everyday anyway. Kabir also revealed the second method:
Even though many people know that when the nozzle is hanged on the pump, the readings revert to zero, fuel attendants have also found a way to manoeuvre it to make some money.
What we do is to gently place the nozzle, such that it won’t click to rub off the old sales and revert to zero, so, we fake it, which means the dispenser is still running, so if anyone comes, we simply continue from where we stop and that is why sometimes it seems like we are rushing the customers. It is easier when the last sale is a small quantity. Even though the use of the Recall or TIM/CAL’ button on some of these machines is the easiest method, faking the nozzle is another viable way to make money.
If the previous sale is about N200 maybe by a Keke NAPEP and Okada rider, or even commercial buses (danfo) drivers, because they are the ones who buy fuel in bits, we will gently place the nozzle, and naturally, when you see that we remove the nozzle from the hanger, that is, from the engine, you believe that it started from zero. However, it is not always the case,” he said.
Kabir was quick to add that some station managers or managements know about their tricks but that once they are caught or reported by a customer, such person could be sacked. He added that attendants usually sell in all cases but such sales might not start from zero or could be recalled to a previous sale that had the same amount, which would be an incomplete sale for the customer.
“Sometimes we could gain up to N1,000 from one sale, it depends on the quantity that the consumer wants, and those that are caught are usually the greedy ones,” he noted.
He added that in filling stations where their dispensers do not have Recall or TIM/CAL only the last sale could be recalled, hence, once the last sale is not the same with the current sale, faking the hanging of the nozzle might be the only way to make money through such pump.
Station owners and managers also dupe customers
A female attendant with a major oil marketer company in Lagos Island, Seun Jegede, told PUNCH how station managers and filling station owners also cheat their customers.
She alleged that most filling stations alter their meters to under-dispense fuel at the detriment of customers, which is a known phenomenon among consumers. Even though this could be a product of greed and inadequate regulation, she said they also do that to make up for some loss they might have incurred during sales.
“Based on experience, I can tell you that almost all filling stations, including the ones being run by government, adjust their meters and what they do is to settle the officials from the Department of Petroleum Resources if or when they come for inspection.
No attendant can alter the meter on his own, except the manager sanctions it because it involves the engineer changing the panel and doing some mechanical readjustment. That is why many filling stations that alter their meters have to bribe their way through because the engineers are not always there, except the manager recommends a trusted attendant to be trained so as to put the pumps back to normal if DPR comes.
The adjustment is easier with the marathon machine because it has a key in front of the meter. This allows for quick readjustment of the meter so as to scale through the due diligence check by the DPR, which could be once in six months,” Jegede explained.
She added that the decision to alter the meter could either come from the owner of the station or the station manager in connivance with the engineer, adding that whoever orders the adjustment takes the money made from the unsold quantity.
Station attendants also cheat their employers
According to John, not only customers are open to this fraud, even the management that the attendants work for are not immune to their fraudulent acts, through what he called ‘no reading’. In this case only the price meter reads while the litre reading does not move. He said this could be a product of frequent repairs of the pump or any other mechanical fault, which could make it malfunction.
"When there is ‘no reading’ on the litre menu, and the management is not aware, there is no way the management will know the actual number of litres that have been sold. What we do in such cases is to sell on the basis of amount only and we sometimes negotiate with the customer for settlement because we can sell more to make money. I can even call someone from home to come and buy and keep for me, before the management finds out that the litre is not reading.
Even though the ‘no reading’ issue rarely happens, it becomes a free for all if it happens to the diesel or kerosene pump that usually has no attendant attached to it. With that, tracing who sells what quantity may be difficult, even though an attendant must be smart to avoid being penalized.
Another form of ‘no reading’ is when some attendants, especially those attached to diesel or kerosene that have lesser patronage compared to petrol, gently press the nozzle (just like a one-touch press) that may not read on the meter whereas some fuel will still come out. It can also happen when they finish selling and instead of hanging the nozzle, they place it inside the keg for the little quantity to drip into their kegs. It may appear little, but over a long time, the gentle one-touch press and the leftovers become a large quantity. That is why you see some attendants having kegs beside them,” John explained.
The attendants further explained that they make more money when there is epileptic power supply which force people to buy fuel in kegs.
“When there is no power supply and people struggle or force your nozzle in their kegs, many of them don’t care about starting from zero, which is a plus for us,” he said.
They however said station attendants find it difficult to cheat if the customer comes out of the vehicle to stay with them, adding that those who sit in their vehicles can easily be distracted or shortchanged.
What's your personal experience with petrol stations and their attendants, guys?