Monday, August 16, 2004

The Florida Attorney General’s office has received almost 1,000 price-gouging complaints since Hurricane Charley blew through the state, leaving thousands of residents homeless or without power.

The Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commission, which also is taking complaints, had received about 500 by yesterday afternoon, said spokesman Terence McElroy.

“Whenever you have a natural disaster, you unfortunately have a small minority of people who take advantage of others in need,” Mr. McElroy said.

Consumers pay the high prices out of desperation to have habitable shelters and the basic essentials as quickly as possible. “You have to understand, these people have had no power or running water for days, most with just the clothes on their back, in Florida where it is about 95 degrees,” Mr. McElroy said.

Some greedy merchants started ahead of the storm. He cited one complaint about a man in the Orlando area who normally leases generators for $250 a day with no requirements. He boosted the price to about $400 a day just before the storm hit, and implemented a seven-day minimum policy.

State agencies and local law-enforcement officers are already combing neighborhoods to stop potential price gouging. In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida passed a law banning needlessly inflated prices after a declared “state of emergency.”

Price gouging tends to be worst after natural disasters. Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist warned residents on Friday to watch for retailers looking to make a quick profit.

Consumers were warned to not pay extremely high prices for commodities like water, gasoline, batteries, food, hotel rooms, ice, lumber and generators.

They were also urged to shop around for home contractors and tree service companies.

Retailers are allowed to raise prices if they also are paying more for the goods or services, but they cannot artificially inflate prices above their costs.

Individuals or businesses found guilty of price gouging face fines up to $1,000 per violation or a maximum fine of $25,000 a day.

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