a story about tracking gas-at-the-pump hikes through gasbuddy.com

 

Winona Dulka is "scrapbasket" in her other life.

The Springfield resident - and Longaberger basket dealer - is a volunteer for gasbuddy.com, a popular gas-price tracking Web site that relies on a national network of volunteers to report daily changes in the cost of fuel.

It also is an assignment that has kept her busy of late with prices often spiking by 15 to 20 cents per gallon overnight.

"Personally, it started out for me to find cheaper gas for long trips. Then I started writing down prices. You try to help people," Dulka said, who signed up as a gasbuddy.com volunteer after prices shot up last summer.

At least three or four times a week - usually on trips for Longaberger - the 45-year-old Dulka jots down the price of gasoline at area stations and logs the information into the gasbuddy.com Web site using her "scrapbasket" screen name and a special password.

Gasbuddy.com is part of a booming cottage industry in online gas-price tracking and fuel-saving tips as motorists cope with prices well above $3 per gallon, and even $4 in some regions of the country. But consumer and industry experts urge the same caution with price-tracking and fuel-saving sites as with any online product.

A spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission said scams promising to stretch fuel mileage always pick up whenever the price of gasoline spikes.

"We've brought lawsuits against dozens of companies that promote products to put in your tank or that promise to increase fuel mileage," Mitch Katz said.

Katz said he was not aware of problems with price-tracking Web sites, though it is important to remember most also are marketing some type of service or products. A variety of credit card companies, supercenter retailers and oil chains also offer fuel discounts for use of their credit or courtesy cards.

The Meijer supercenter chain, which has an outlet in Springfield, recently launched a text-messaging service that warns users an hour or two in advance of significant increases in the price of gasoline.

A pilot program was conducted in Indianapolis before it was expanded to more than 170 stores in the Midwest.

"There's no fee. You just sign up, and when there's going to be a substantial increase, not just a few pennies, you'll receive a text message that the price is going up within a few hours," said Springfield store manager Craig Knapp.

While Meijer does not charge for the alerts, participants should check the cost of their text-messaging service, he added.

Knapp said the service, which allows sign-up through www.meijer.com, certainly is part of a marketing strategy that helps drive customers to the store. But he said the text-message system is used only to alert participants to rising gasoline prices.

The AAA Motor Club daily "fuel gauge" report at www.aaa.com has long been one of the most popular sources of price tracking by market. AAA Chicago spokeswoman Beth Mosher said the report is compiled for the group by the Oil Price Information Service and is based on credit card transactions at 85,000 stations nationwide.

Mosher said prices do often vary considerably among markets, even within the same region, or from one community to the next.

Retailers, too, subscribe to daily price-tracking services, said Bill Fleischli, executive vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association, which has about 500 members statewide. But he said federal antitrust laws strictly prohibit members from discussing prices among themselves.

"There can't be any discussion of prices at all," Fleischli said.

He also said the latest run-up in fuel prices is a case of supply and demand.

"People have all these answers (for higher fuel prices). It's very basic. We use 23 billion barrels of gasoline per day in this country, and we make 17 billion," he said.

Dulka said, while price tracking helps, the service has not changed the reality of record-high fuel prices and the impact on her family and business budget. She also has her own theories about the role of big oil in driving up costs, refinery shortages and prices that always seem to shoot up as a holiday nears.

But it's those local trips that matter most.

"Definitely, we've cut back. It's really sad. We don't go back to visit family as much in Mattoon and Charleston," she said. "It costs us like $40 in gas to go home, so now we plan our visits and only go about once a month."

End-of-Story