Hurricane Irma: Price gouging, scam complaints already exceed 4,000

Florida residents have already logged more than 4,000 complaints with Attorney General Pam Bondi’s price-gouging hotline but officials say they expect those numbers will only continue to rise when Hurricane Irma is gone.

Most of the complaints filed so far deal with excessive prices being charged for water, ice and fuel, a spokeswoman for the office said Friday. The initial calls came mostly from Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

“But as people began evacuating, the price-gouging complaints have moved north too,” said spokeswoman Kylie Mason.

Many South Floridians were outraged by the excessive prices charged by some for essential items as they prepared for the storm.

After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, there were reports of some businesses charging $20 for a gallon of gas and $99 for a case of water, according to state officials. Many of the hundreds of complaints logged in the days after that storm dealt with gas stations charging $6 to $8 per gallon.

Others complained they were charged double the normal price for a hotel room.

Experts call it reverse-looting in the aftermath of major disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

Victims in Florida are urged to report specific information to the state’s Price Gouging Hotline at 1-866-966-7226 or online at www.myfloridalegal.com. Keep your receipt or take a photograph of the displayed charge to support your complaint.

State laws, enacted after Hurricane Andrew, prohibit extreme increases in the price of essentials — food, water, ice, gasoline, lumber and hotel rooms that consumers need in an official emergency.

Violators face civil penalties of $1,000 per violation and up to $25,000 for multiple violations in a 24-hour period.

The law compares the price of the item or service during the state of emergency to the average price charged in the month before the declared state of emergency. Investigators call it price gouging if there is a “gross disparity” between the two charges.

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Some experts argue that dramatically increasing the price for items like generators and lumber is a normal part of the economy. They say it encourages people to buy only what they truly need and provides incentives to entrepreneurs to get supplies to people willing to pay the going price — ultimately causing the prices to normalize as businesses supply the demand.

In South Florida, some consumers said they understood the tradeoff they were making and chose convenience and necessity over frugality as the hurricane loomed.

Plantation resident Samantha Downie said she knows she paid about twice the normal price for three empty gas cans to store fuel for her family’s generator. But she says it was totally worth it for the convenience factor.

The 52-year-old human resources director for a local accounting firm said she knows the sellers were price-gouging when they charged $80 for two 5-gallon cans and $25 for a 2-gallon can. She spent more on the plastic tanks than gasoline to fill up her car and the three containers.

“I didn’t mind the prices, actually, as it was that or go without my generator working,” Downie said. “I had ordered everything else — like batteries and water — on Amazon, but forgot the cans and it was too late to order them.”

Downie is an avid seller and buyer on the OfferUp app, where she found the sellers. After more than 150 transactions, she said she’s never had a bad experience with buyers or sellers.

“When I couldn’t find cans [in local stores] I just opened my app and within 25 minutes I had 3 and was filling them up with gas,” she said. “Prices are generally super reasonable. This was the first price gouging I saw but supply and demand will do that. I saw far worse on there, like $75 for a can.”

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In the aftermath of hurricanes, investigators say it’s a given that scams involving charities and home repairs will escalate.

Bondi is already working with GoFundMe, which allows organizations and individuals to solicit online donations from the public, to try to stop fraudsters from taking advantage of people who want to help victims of the storm.

“She has reached out to GoFundMe and is working with them to be proactive and let us know about any suspicious activity they see so that we can investigate it and take any appropriate action,” Mason said.

GoFundMe spokesman Bobby Whithorne said contributors are protected by the company’s guarantee that “the funds go to the right place or donors will get their money back.”

Donors can contact the campaign organizer directly with questions or report suspicious activity directly to GoFundMe by clicking on the “Report Campaign” button on the website.

Other state departments are also taking measures to discourage or clamp down on fraudulent appeals for help.

Before donating, officials recommend researching charitable organizations on the FloridaConsumerHelp.com website, which shows the final information that registered charitable organizations report to Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The Better Business Bureau has a searchable database and you can report suspicious activity on its Scam Tracker.

Charitable organizations must register with the state before soliciting contributions in Florida, and those that raise $50,000 or more in the aftermath of natural disasters or other crises must submit specific information, said Commissioner Adam Putnam.

The groups also have to report contribution amounts and the amount of money spent on the charity’s expenses so donors can make informed decisions after learning what percentage of their money will go to those in need and how much is spent on administrative costs. http://www.freshfromflorida.com/Business-Services/Solicitation-of-Contributions

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Report any suspicious charitable solicitations by calling 1-800-435-7352 (English) or 1-800-352-9832 (Spanish).

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