Customers who paid in advance for fuel oil and service from the E. C. Keys & Sons oil company are out of luck now that the firm has gone out of business, the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs has decided.

Other unsecured creditors of the Keys company are in the same boat -- they are unlikely to be able to collect any money owed them by the now-defunct Silver Spring business.

Apparently only Keys' biggest creditor, the National Bank of Washington, will be able to collect from the firm, which has gone broke but not bankrupt.

Bankruptcy is meant to distribute the assets of a debtor equitably among creditors. But virtually all of the Keys company's assets are pledged as collateral to the bank, and secured creditors have first crack at whatever money there is.

The Keys operation -- which included a brick company and building supply business as well as the $2.5-million-a-year fuel oil business -- abruptly closed its doors the week before Christmas.

The chairman and sole owner, John Boyd Pearson, left town. He's reported to be in Lake Tahoe, Nev., but could not be reached for comment.

Attorney Larry Martin, who represents the Keys firm, said he met recently with Pearson and is working with creditors to settle the debts of the business.

"I don't know yet" what will happen to an estimated 700 persons who paid in advance for fuel oil and burner service or the other unsecured creditors, Martin said.

Frank Jose, deputy director of the Montgomery County consumer affairs office, said the agency has determined it can do nothing to help the Keys customers.

Jose said Montgomery County officials found the Keys company had collected about $101,000 in advance payments on fuel oil and another $68,000 on oil burner service contracts before going out of business.

Although between 250 and 300 Montgomery County residents have complained that they paid Keys in advance for fuel and service, Jose said his department found no evidence of fraud and thus could not act.

"There has to be a pattern of deceptive practices, something other than just going out of business" before the county consumer agency can act, Jose said. An investigation found no evidence that the firm took money from customers without intending to deliver the goods and services, he explained.

He said the county agency has no authority to sue on behalf of consumers unless fraud is involved.

There is no indication the Keys firm has any money or other assets that might be used to pay back the customers, Jose added.

The firm's biggest creditor National Bank of Washington, was owed $2.1 million when Keys closed its doors.

"We do not expect to lose any money," said NBW Vice Chairman Henry Sanderson.

The Keys' debt to the bank was secured by a lien on the firm's inventories, oil trucks and accounts receivable -- virtually all of its assets.

Since Keys went out of business, the amount owed the bank has been reduced to about $1 million through sale of some of the company's assets.

Persons familiar with the business failure said it is still not known whether there will be any money left after the bank is paid.

The company has not filed for bankruptcy, Martin said. There would be no point in doing so if the firm has no assets.

Pearson reportedly had held negotiations to sell the fuel oil operation with two other local suppliers on a Friday and, when the talks failed, shut the doors the following Monday.

Pearson took other steps that indicate he was preparing to close down. A few weeks before the end, he transferred title to Keys' real estate from the corporation to a trust fund set up for his children.

Although some Keys customers complained about that transaction, it too is beyond the reach of the Montgomery County consumer affairs office.