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Consumer Affairs Inspectors Keep Ocean County Honest

From gas station to gold buyers, investigators ensure Ocean County businesses treat consumers fairly

Leo Altobelli ensures medications at a convenienc store are not past their expiration dates. (Photo: Daniel Nee)
Leo Altobelli ensures medications at a convenienc store are not past their expiration dates. (Photo: Daniel Nee)
A lot has changed in the decade and a half that Leo Altobelli has been on the job as an inspector with the Ocean County Consumer Affairs Department.

Small stores have switched from price labels to barcodes, the pumps at gas stations are all digital and the price of gold has skyrocketed. All that means more work for the department, where Altobelli serves as the Assistant Superintendent for Weights and Measures.

“There’s no typical day,” Altobelli said, as he and Barry Wieck, the deputy superintendent of Weights and Measures, took Patch on a tour this week to provide a glimpse into the role the sometimes little-known department serves.

But as much as some things have changed, things have gotten better, as the department has taken a more active role in enforcing state regulations that make sure gas pumps match up with per-gallon pricing, scales at gold dealers aren’t rigged to short-change customers and medication being sold over the counter isn’t past its expiration date.

“We’ve helped craft some of the newer laws for recycling dealers and precious metal businesses,” said Wieck, a testament to a department that makes as big of an impact as possible with a staff of less than 10 people.

The first stop of Altobelli and Wieck’s day on Tuesday was a convenience store in Beachwood, where Altobelli checked the expiration dates on medication being sold, as well as food items. Everything checked out. But Wieck said that on occasion, discount stores purchase surplus items from larger chains and distributors that may have a closer expiration date than a larger chain like CVS or Rite Aid would buy.

Next, it was off to a Hess station on Route 9, where the pair used a piece of measuring equipment to pump five gallons of gas into a chamber, after which a display indicates a reading to determine whether five gallons on the pump’s display screen means five gallons in a vehicle’s tank.

The Hess station’s pump was within the state’s acceptable margins, within a few cents worth of gas to the display screen. But sometimes, pumps aren’t properly calibrated.

“We find that about 2 percent of pumps are out of compliance,” said Wieck.

Sometimes, he said, the pumps output too much gas, hurting the business owner. Other times, it’s the consumer who’s getting the short end of the stick. In other instances, pumps are found to be leaking or filled with air. The team also uses an electronic device to check the pump’s octane level to ensure that a customer buying premium fuel is getting what they pay for.

There are about 2,000 gas pumps in Ocean County and each one is checked at least once a year, Wieck said.

A scanning test was next on the agenda. The pair went to a local pharmacy and used a barcode scanner to register prices onto a receipt that was printed out. When Altobelli went to the register, the prices on the printout had to match up properly with what the store’s computer would charge a customer for the same item.

The pharmacy passed the test, which also included an impromptu test of the pill counter in the pharmacy section. About 3 percent of scanners are off, Altobelli said.

Later in the day, the team inspected the scale at Atlantic City Jewelry, where owner Chris Biele welcomed the inspectors with a smile.

The jewelry store buys precious metals and its scale must be properly calibrated in order to ensure customers receive a fair offer for the jewelry they’re turning in. Altobelli used a calibrated, county-owned scale to ensure the store’s reading matched up with the county’s reading.

“We’re glad they check because a lot of these ‘we buy gold’ places have been popping up, and some of them make us all look bad,” said Biele.

Indeed, the county has issued violations to several gold buying businesses in recent years as the price of gold has increased. Most of them have either cleaned up their acts or closed up shop, said Wieck.

‘Things People Don’t Even Think Of’

Ocean County’s consumer affairs department is unique in that it often takes a more active role than its equivalents in other counties, said Stephen Scaturro, the department’s director. In addition to the various Weights and Measures inspections – which also include ensuring scales at grocery stores are working properly and tuning forks for police radars are properly calibrated – the department responds to citizen complaints.

In the wake of Sandy, the department’s investigators have cracked down on dishonest contractors and have worked with local police departments and the prosecutor’s office to file charges where necessary.

In 2013, the department helped recoup $1 million for consumers in Ocean County.

“Sometimes, these are things people don’t even think of,” said Wieck, who recently issued a violation summons to the Macy’s store in the Ocean County Mall for selling socks and underwear for a different price than advertised.

The department also performs two annual checks on boardwalk games in Point Pleasant Beach and Seaside Heights, and ensures stores are not selling banned substances, such as synthetic marijuana.

“The thing is, though, we’re not out to get anyone, to target businesses,” said Scaturro, who explained the department will often work with a business to rectify pricing errors, equipment malfunctions or customer complaints before summonses are issued. “Sometimes, it’s really not the business’s fault. Sometimes they didn’t even know something was broken.”

Wieck said inspectors are mindful not to disrupt businesses, as the vast majority of merchants are honest people.

Honesty, Scaturro explained, in many cases is the result of the department’s inspections. These days, there are far fewer violations at gas pumps than there were about 10 years ago when the output and octane level inspections began, and the 1,800 businesses with scales work harder than ever to ensure their equipment is functioning properly.

“It’s all about keeping people honest,” he said.

Mr. Happy March 21, 2014 at 09:49 AM
Actually Yates @proud fail fraud is the bottom feeder. He changed his name to try to escape his past here on Patch. And your words "honestly I do not know" about the book is self explanatory. Never recommend a book you don't understand and you will never have to admit a mistake when questioned about it. Soon Mr. Happy will shame you into a name change just like He did with @proud unless you get with the program.
FIMF the ll March 21, 2014 at 09:53 AM
Mr Happy, the only people that should be ashamed are your mother that houses you and the impotent Barellacrats that you campaigned for prior to your sabbatical. How's that working out?
grace March 21, 2014 at 09:55 AM
time to air out the basement
Robert Yates March 21, 2014 at 10:50 AM
Like I said @Mr. Happy: your program is going down. I know you will all kick and scream (and probably kill in the process) but it is an economic imperative that it is going down.
Andy Pat March 21, 2014 at 11:54 AM
#BiteMe -I do not get your logic. If Scarpelli had been offered a deal in which he resigned and avoided prosecution you would be OK with that? And if he was subsequently offered a public taxpayer supported job appointment for over 100K a year you would be OK with that also?? Because I would not. Military service or not. Once you betray the public trust you should be barred from public employment. You know the old saying, "Fool me once, shame on you...

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