FORT MYERS, Fla. — The hurricane hit and prices went up. So say the more than 2,000 consumers who have contacted the Florida Attorney General to complain of price gouging.
Simply raising prices isn't illegal, but in a declared state of emergency, such as the one Florida is under, there is a statutory "prohibition against unconscionable prices." Food, water, fuel, lumber, lodging and storage facilities get the most complaints about gouging during an emergency, even though every "commodity" is covered.
How do you tell the difference between gouging and a normal price increase? If, for example, hotel rooms were $65 in the 30 days prior to the hurricane and then, when there was a run on rooms, the price went up to $150, that's price gouging.
When water that's usually $1 a bottle, gets a hurricane special price of $5 a bottle, it's gouging. But a few pennies more for a gallon of gas, which goes up most weekends anyway, is probably not.
Covered under the same price-gouging statute are the would-be entrepreneurs who stocked up on items to go into business after the hurricane. For example, if you purchased pallets of bottled water hoping to make a profit by selling them off after the storm – even at a reasonable price – don't do it. Selling to the public, without a business tax receipt during a state of emergency, is a second degree misdemeanor.
The news on the commerce front is not all bad. Generosity, the opposite of gouging, also is on display in Florida this week. U-Haul International, for example, is offering 30-day free self storage at 112 facilities for residents of Eastern Florida and the coastal regions of Georgia and the Carolinas who were impacted by the storm.
If you suspect price gouging, make a report by calling the Attorney General's office at 1-866-9-NO-SCAM.