MILAN (Reuters) - A number of oil companies operating in Italy artificially boosted the price of gasoline at the pump through intra-company deals, Italian tax police said on Thursday .
In a statement, police said an investigation into the reasons for a steep rise in petrol prices in Italy uncovered "the existence of a fraudulent increase in the price of fuel through speculative dealings that have damaged consumers."
The investigation, which probed whether the oil companies used some form of a mechanism known as "transfer pricing," was triggered by a complaint from consumer group Codacons and looked at gasoline price movements from the start of 2011 to March 2012.
Transfer pricing is the practice of charging one business for goods or services supplied by another business in the same group. It may inflate profits in low-tax jurisdictions and depress profits in high-tax countries.
High pump prices have, for some time, been a bone of contention in car-mad Italy and last year broke through the psychological threshold of 2 euros per litre.
Businesses have complained about the impact of high fuel prices on costs.
Industry body Unione Petrolifera has said that 58 percent of the price of a litre of petrol in Italy is from taxes.
The police did not name any of the companies involved, but an investigative source with direct knowledge of the situation said Eni, Shell, Esso, Tamoil, TotalErg, Q8 and Api were at the centre of the probe.
No company is under any formal investigation, the source added.
Eni and Shell declined to comment, while it was not possible to contact Esso, Tamoil, Q8 or Api.
A spokesman for TotalErg said the company had received no notification of the matter and had learned of the investigation from newspapers.
"If anything happens we are of course ready to cooperate," the spokesman said.
In a statement later on Thursday, Unione Petrolifera said companies had "expressed incredulity and profound disquiet regarding the serious accusations in this (police) statement."
(Writing and additional reporting by Lisa Jucca; Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford and Steve Orlofky)