Fraud at gas stations in Vietnam is rampant, according to sources, who say efforts by the government to crack down on the overpriced pumps are ineffective.
Motorists recently told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that gas stations use a variety of methods to adjust their meters, allowing them to routinely rip off customers.
“When I was in Ho Chi Minh City, the person who pumped my gas was different from the person who checked the meter,” Tuan Anh, a motorist from southern Vietnam’s Vung Tau city.
Another motorist from Hanoi, who gave his name as Trung, said it is hard for customers to prove that they are being ripped off, but added that he was aware of several techniques commonly used by gas stations to overcharge at the pump.
“They have a lot of tricks that allow them to pump less gas than they are supposed to, so they can take more money from their customers,” he said.
“For example, they can place a chip in the meter so the amount of gas displayed is incorrect, or they use residual gas from the previous customer for the next one.”
Claims by motorists appear to have been backed up by government investigations, with state media recently reporting that between April and September this year, inspection teams fined 232 gas stations a total of 8.4 billion dong (U.S. $380,000) for scamming customers.
While the accepted rate of error for measuring 10 liters (2.6 gallons) of gas is within 0.3 percent, inspectors discovered errors at the gas stations of 2-15 percent, the report said, suggesting that some owners were keeping up to 1.5 liters (0.4 gallons) for every 10 liters sold.
According to the report, the range of error was found at “the majority of both private and state-owned gas stations.”
Last week, the Vietnam Economy News reported that deputy prime minister Nguyen Xuan had ordered relevant authorities to carry out inspections of gas stations for fraud and to come up with “prompt solutions” to the problem.
But at an average of only a few million dong (1 million dong = U.S. $45), sources told RFA that fines levied at fraudulent gas station are not enough of a deterrent, as owners stand to make much more money by scamming their customers.
Economist Nguyen Minh Phong of the Hanoi Institute for Socioeconomic Development Studies told RFA that fraudulent practices at gas stations in Vietnam were “no surprise.”
“This situation is making people upset because the gas stations are not only selling less gas, but also bad quality gas,” he said.
Phong said the problem highlights gas station owners’ ignorance of business ethics and the law, as well as ineffective law enforcement and consumers’ lack of a mechanism to protect their rights, but expressed doubt that the situation would change.
“If the media does not expose the problem, the people will have to accept their losses,” he said.
An official with Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade told RFA that motorists should be more aware of signs that a gas station may be defrauding customers.
“There are always things that give away gas stations which run scams—we can see them in the behavior of their staff,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Consumers should pay attention to that and demand employees reset the meter to zero before they start the pump. Also, everybody should be aware of how much gas they need each time they fill up the tank and … if they see a difference [in price] they should inform us.”
Phong suggested that setting up a hotline through which customers can inform authorities about fraud at gas stations would help alleviate the problem.
“After calling the hotline, people would feel more satisfied [that the issue is being handled] and will be more cooperative [in helping authorities crack down on the practice],” he said.
“However, I think the gas sector will push back against [setting up a hotline] because they do not want to be exposed. Consumers will benefit from this if the Ministry of Industry and Trade requires [authorities] to do so.”
In early November, retail gasoline prices in Vietnam were reduced by between 4.2 and 4.9 percent at the request of the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Industry and Trade, according to the official Thanh Nien News agency.
The reduction saw the cost of Vietnam's most popular gasoline grade, 92-RON, drop to 17,232 dong (U.S. $0.77) per liter (0.26 gallons).
This year gasoline prices in Vietnam have been adjusted 15 times, including six hikes, the report said.
Consumers in Vietnam say they are regularly overcharged for gasoline, as taxes and other surcharges often amount to nearly 50 percent of the retail price of the fuel.
Reported by Anh Vu for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.