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When buying gas in Massachusetts, discounts are OK and surcharges aren't

Posted by Mitch Lipka  March 26, 2013 09:26 PM

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Q. Is it legal for Cumberland Farms in Massachusetts to offer 10 cents off a gallon of gas if you use your smartphone or linked checking account to purchase gas? It seems like it discriminates against poorer people who cannot afford a smartphone or don’t have a checking account. I always thought gas was supposed to be the same price whether cash or credit.

Paul Marino, Bolton

A. Questions about gas prices come up all the time, particularly when motorists see more than one price at the pump. Massachusetts does have rules that prohibit placing a surcharge on the use of a credit card. However, as much as it seems like the same thing, a gas station can discount the price for customers paying in cash.

So, discounting is fine and surcharging isn’t. While most stations charge the same price for cash or credit, there is a reason why some discount for the use of cash – or, in this case, a smartphone or checking account-linked card. Gas stations tend to have pretty tight margins and steering customers away from credit cards helps them to avoid the fees assessed for every transaction, something that cuts into the bottom line.

The folks at Framingham-based Cumberland Farms don’t see themselves as elitist, noting their low-price coffee and soda. Cumberland Farms said it introduced its SmartPay system to avoid credit card and debit card processing fees and pass some of the savings to customers in the form of discounts.

If customers don’t have a smart phone, they can pick up a SmartPay card, which is linked to a checking account and works like a debit card. SmartPay cards are available at Cumberland Farm stores.

“The SmartPay Check-Link payment program was designed to be as inclusive as possible for all of our customers, whether they use a smartphone or prefer the free SmartPay payment card,” said Kate Ngo, Cumberland Farms’ senior manager of brand strategy.

As much as bank fees might be an issue for some consumers, free checking accounts with minimal balance requirements are available at local banks and credit unions. So, most folks, whether they have a smartphone or not, should be able to figure out a way to get this discount – if it really mattered to them.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Mitch Lipka is one of America's leading consumer journalists and advocates. He is an expert in product safety, recalls, scams, and helping consumers get out of jams. He is a nationally known consumer columnist and runs TheConsumerChronicle.com. He lives in Worcester. You can find him on Facebook or reach him at ConsumerNews@Aol.com

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