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Tax Cheat Rap Sheet:
Week ending May 25, 2007

The rising cost of summer driving

Lots of folks will be leaving work early today, getting a head start on Memorial Day travel. But the trip will not start on a happy note for most.

Old_gas_pumps_2 That's because most of this weekend's 38 million travelers will be driving and they'll have to fill up their cars before hitting the road. Given the pump prices -- I saw a station charging $3.44 when I was in Seattle -- it's going to be an expensive getaway.

And since this is the just the beginning of the summer driving season, don't expect any gas price relief any time soon.

I was only partly joking yesterday when I mentioned picking up a hybrid for your vacation travels. If your vehicle doesn't get very good mileage, with today's gas prices you might consider sleeping in your car, since in some cases your fuel costs could be more than your lodging charges.

Here in Texas, the state's Agriculture Department is responsible for seeing that customers get what we pay for at the pump. Commissioner Todd Staples said that as gasoline has gone up, his office has been received more complaints of price gouging.

More than 68,500 pumps in Texas are checked every year. The state's inspectors test the fuel pumps for accuracy and operation, according to standards set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. If any fail to dispense fuel within the allowable tolerance levels, an inspector will place an "out of order" tag on the pump.

And today, just in time for the Memorial Day holiday, fines for such violations will cost the gas station owners four times what the penalty used to be.

Standardizing the standards: Most other states (29 according to one report) also have various price gouging statutes. Check with your state officials about the laws where you live.

To fill in the gaps where no enforcement rules for over-priced gas exist, Congress is trying to get some sort of national anti-gouging law on the books. The latest attempt came this week when, by a 284-to-141 vote, the House of Representatives approved a measure that would penalize individuals or companies for taking "unfair advantage" or charging "unconscionably excessive" fuel prices.

But Associated Press reporter H. Josef Hebert notes that stopping gas price gouging may be easier to say than to detect or enforce.

Policing the pump yourself: Right now, the best advice for all of us drivers is to pay attention when we fill up our autos. Here are some things to look and look out for when you refuel:

  • Watch out for pump jumping. This is where the price of fuel is already registering on the display before you ever start filling up. 
  • Check the pump hoses for cracks. Damaged hoses could mean you're not getting all the gas you're paying for. 
  • Make sure the cost and gallon numbers align clearly on the pump read-out. 
  • Reconcile your vehicle's tank capacity with what you pumped. If you have a 20-gallon tank and the pump shows you put in 22, you've got a problem.

More fuel efficient: If this year's gas prices really do drive you to get a more fuel-efficient auto, here's the latest scoop on the hybrid tax breaks.

Lexus_ls600h_2 But not necessarily cheaper: You might, however, want to avoid the new Toyota hybrid that's coming out in a couple of weeks. The Lexus LS600h will be the most expensive hybrid with a $104,750 price tag.

And, as they say, taxes, tags and title are extra.

Once the LS600h's fuel efficiency is certified by the IRS, you'll get a bit of a hybrid tax credit on your 2007 return to make a minuscule dent in that price.

If you wanted to take that price amount and spend it instead on gas for your existing auto, at today's national average price of $3.225 for unleaded fuel, you could get 32,480.62 gallons for your current gas guzzler.

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