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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When a Kilogram's Not a Kilogram

Going to the store or market in Moscow can be tricky enough for any expatriate, especially if you have trouble with the Russian language.

These difficulties are only compounded when a product you are buying, such as cheese, sausage or vegetables, has to be weighed. How can you be sure the product has been properly weighed or that the scales haven't been altered?

"It's especially a problem at the markets," said Svetlana Kulnitskaya, a board member of the Moscow Society for Consumer Defense, a consumer advocacy group and nonprofit organization that is part of the International Confederation of Consumer Societies.

"It happens often," agreed shopper Svetlana Litvinova, as she came out of the Butyrsky market carrying a bag of eggs. She said she thinks the problem is equally widespread in stores.

Unfortunately, it's not always easy to tell if the scales are being tipped.

"You have to be a professional," said Valery Lopatin, laboratory head at Rostest-Moskva, the city institute that tests and certifies consumer scales for Moscow. Lopatin, who said an untrained eye would have difficulty determining if a scale has been altered in any way, is well aware of the situation regarding Moscow's market scales. "We understand there's a problem," he said.

His organization has started coordinating efforts with the Moscow police to crack down on vendor fraud, with recent checks at the Ryzhsky and Vykhino markets.

Lopatin said all scales have to go through testing before receiving certification. If tampering is discovered during inspections -- which normally take place once a year and by law should be set up by the vendor -- heavy fines can result, ranging anywhere from five to 100 minimum salaries (Russia's minimum wage is 83 rubles per month.)

All scales must have a lead seal attached to them or carry a certificate of approval, which any consumer has the right to see.

But despite the laws and control, which Kulnitskaya says are technically on European levels but are poorly enforced, salespeople can have other, slightly more obvious tricks up their sleeves to falsely weigh products. Shoppers may think this legerdemain means only a few extra kopeks, but it all adds up both for the consumer and the salesperson, who is committing an economic crime.

On mechanical scales, Lopatin said, a plastic bag should be placed on the counter weight to compensate for the cost of the bag, something which is not done in many cases. The same rule applies for the paper that vendors use to cover the scales' planes to protect products from coming into direct contact with equipment. Electronic scales, which are becoming more common, must be calibrated to zero with the bag or paper on them, but this practice is also often ignored. Stay away from consumer scales, such as the round ones commonly seen at markets. "They are forbidden by all laws," be they federal, city or market rules, Lopatin said.

But sometimes salespeople put a finger on the scale, increasing the weight and, of course, the price. Also, ensure that products that have already been weighed -- with the weight shown on the label -- aren't weighed again.

So how can you protect yourself, and your wallet, from unwanted financial incursions?

One of the most effective methods is simply vigilance and knowing what could potentially happen. Kulnitskaya advises shoppers to carry their own scales or use the control scales for customers that every store or market is required by law to have.

But if your complaint is more serious, or if you can prove that a product was falsely weighed, then turning to the Moscow Society for Consumer Defense can also be an option for getting money back.

"Our goal is to defend the consumer," Kulnitskaya said.

To receive compensation, shoppers must bring the product in untouched, with a receipt. The society can help consumers get compensation by writing a statement to two watchdog organizations: either the State Commerce Inspectorate or the Moscow Department of Consumer Market and Services. (Because the society is a not-for-profit organization, services such as consultation and filing complaints carry a charge, starting at 50 rubles. If proof cannot be determined definitively, then the society can only advise the consumer to report the infraction to the watchdog agencies.)

At markets, vendors occupying a constant stall are required to give receipts. But many of the smaller vendors are not required to give out receipts, nor do they have cash registers.

"That's why you have to be careful," said Nadezhda Golovka, chairman of the Moscow Society for Consumer Defense, because in this case you can't prove anything.

Litvinova said she goes on her intuition when she has doubts about a store's or market's scales. "I feel it and [see it] by the expression on the salesman's face," she said. In this case, she does the easiest thing: "I refuse to buy it."