Florida officials ask public’s help in busting price-gougers (video)

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In response to the barrage of thousands of complaints Florida residents have already made on the state’s price-gouging hotline since a “state of emergency” was declared, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi says she will begin shaming businesses that participate in the practice.

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 a “state of emergency” was declared dealt with gas stations charging $6 to $8 per gallon. Others complained they were charged double the normal price for a hotel room.

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.

Experts call it “reverse-looting” in the aftermath of major disasters, and it happens nearly every time. “It’s sickening, it’s disgusting, it’s unacceptable and we’re not going to have it,” said Bondi at a Wednesday evening press conference in Tallahassee.

She urged victims of consumer ripoffs and scams to report specific information by calling the state’s Price Gouging Hotline at 1-866-966-7226 or to visit www.myfloridalegal.com. Keep your receipt or take a photograph of the displayed charge to support your complaint, Bondi advised.

The hotline was activated Sunday, following Gov. Rick Scott’s declaration of a statewide emergency. Since then, hundreds of complaints are coming in every hour, and inspectors with the attorney general’s office are investigating.

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

As they prepared for the storm, some South Floridians were shocked and outraged when they encountered jacked-up prices being charged for essential items by some stores.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, lawmakers decided to legally prohibit extreme increases in the price of essentials, including 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. If there is a “gross disparity” between the two charges, investigators label it price gouging.

Some experts point out that dramatically increasing the price for in-demand items such as generators and water is a natural economic trend which encourages people to buy only what they really need. It also inspires entrepreneurs to get supplies to those people who are willing to pay the going price; and the costs will typically get back to normal as businesses return provide said supplies.

In South Florida, Samantha Downie of Plantation said that she understood that she was choosing convenience and necessity over frugality with the hurricane creeping menacingly towards her neighborhood, which is located only about half an hour from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale beaches.

Employed as a human resources director for a local accounting firm, Downie said she understands why she paid about twice the normal price for three empty gas cans to store fuel for her family’s generator, and she was happy to do it.

“I didn’t mind the prices, actually,” said Downie, who realized that she either had to pay up or have no generator in her family’s time of need. “I had ordered everything else — like batteries and water — on Amazon, but forgot the cans and it was too late to order them.”

Sellers charged Downie $80 for two 5-gallon cans and $25 for a 2-gallon can. She noted that she actually spent more on the plastic gas containers than on the gasoline she purchased to fill up her car and the containers.

Downie had to be shrewd in her efforts to locate the needed gas cans, because the stores had all sold out by the time she realized she should have bought them. She took to an app called OfferUp and was able to find a seller. “When I couldn’t find cans [in local stores] I just opened my app, and within 25 minutes I had three and was filling them up with gas,” she said, noting, “Prices are generally super-reasonable (on OfferUp). 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.”

In the aftermath of hurricanes, investigators say that people should be aware that scams involving charities and home repairs will dramatically increase.

Bondi is already working with GoFundMe, which allows organizations and individuals to solicit online donations from the public, in the state’s efforts 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 should 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.

Researching charitable organizations before you donate 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

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

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