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September 11, 2010

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Residents face fines, unless gas man is paid


Every time Chen Youguo turned on the burners in his kitchen and saw blue flames of coal gas pop to life, he clenched his fists in anger as this word, "thief," haunted him again.

For the past six months, he has struggled to prove himself innocent after a gas maintenance worker accused him of stealing coal gas.

"Not in my whole life have I ever stolen one thing," said Chen. "The accusation is humiliation to my pride."

However, the accusation, not based on any direct evidence, was raised for one reason: A small and significant part of his gas meter, a lead seal, is gone.

A gas maintenance worker believed the absence of the seal was a clear sign that someone had modified the meter, making it run slower -- although he couldn't find any sign of modification, nor any abnormal change on the bill's figures during the previous months.


Nor could he prove that the meter had the seal when it was installed.

He told the old man to pay 300 yuan (US$44) for a private settlement or he would report him to the gas company, which would fine him 3,000 yuan and put his name and picture at the entrance of his complex, depicting him as a thief being caught.

"It's completely extortion," said Chen. "I can't pay the money to accept the title of a 'thief.'"

He is only one among hundreds of residents who have complained online that they have faced the same accusation of stealing gas for the same reason.

A Shanghai Daily investigation found the cases started years ago and have one thing in common: All the victims live in older residential buildings far from downtown areas, and most are elderly.

Unlike frauds where people pretend to be workers from the gas company to cheat on residents, those workers all hold ID cards of the city's only gas supplier company, Shanghai Dazhong Gas, with their names and information available for checking at every district's gas offices.

Zhu Jinsheng, an official with Minhang District Dazhong gas office, said that the company is aware there's a team of gas maintenance workers who have acted beyond their authority.

"Some of them are not directly hired by the company but were hired and sent by other related gas tool suppliers or departments to work together with us," said Zhu. "Their job is limited to only checking the safety of each household's gas system."

Zhu said he was not sure exactly how many such maintenance workers work with them, but he said there were at least 100 such gas tool supplier companies or gas construction departments in Shanghai.

"Employees hired directly by our company won't ask for a private settlement because once found, they will be fired," said Zhu.

A netizen who claims to be a former gas maintenance worker said on a popular local forum, KDS, that he used to earn 1,200 yuan a week in salary. To make extra money, he was told by his group leader to accuse residents of stealing gas, then share in the fines. It was understood, he said, that he was to accuse one or two people a week. That way, he would triple his income.

Zhu called the netizens' statements "nonsense."

According to Chen, there was only one way to fight the accusation: play tough.

After repeatedly refusing to pay any added charges, he finally won the battle by telling the workers that he planned to see them at court.

A group of workers revisited his home in May and conducted another inspection. This time, they found the old man innocent.


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