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Fair to grant discounts on gas to smartphone users?

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.


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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 with cash.

So, discounting is fine and surcharging isn’t. While most stations charge the same whether you’re using cash or credit, there is a reason why some stations 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 avoid the fees assessed for every transaction.

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 smartphone, they can pick up a SmartPay card, which is linked to a checking account and works like a debit card.

“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 matters to them.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers for the past two decades. He also writes the Consumer Alert blog on He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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