Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt is already cracking down on price gouging, identity theft and charitable fraud after a tornado destroyed an Oklahoma City suburb.
In an interview Wednesday, Pruitt said his office has sent more than 30 investigators to the town of Moore and other areas hit by tornados on Monday to check out reports of price gouging involving hotel rooms, car rentals, storage facilities and bottled water.
"We’re responding to a couple of examples of price gouging, as well as trying to raise awareness and educate folks," he said. "It’s both proactive and preventative, and hopefully we’re sending a strong message."
Pruitt’s office is also alerting people about the potential for identity theft after winds of up to 200 miles per hour blew personal documents far and wide. "We had a report of a check that made it all the way to Tulsa," more than 100 miles away, he said. "It’s not something that people think about."
In addition, lawyers from his office are on the lookout for fraudulent charities. "People see a Facebook page or social media post of someone representing themselves as a charity." Pruitt said. "We’re educating people to be on guard and only deal with reputable charities."
The office has established a hotline for people to call with questions about charities, as well as to report price gauging.
Oklahoma’s price gouging law was passed in 1999, after massive tornados devastated many parts of the state.
According to research by Michael Giberson, an assistant professor at the Center for Energy Commerce in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, 34 states and the District of Columbia have laws against price gouging, almost all enacted within the past 20 years.
Oklahoma’s law, which includes the potential for felony criminal charges, is among the strictest. Under the statute, once a state of emergency is declared, businesses for 30 days are barred from raising prices for goods or services by more than 10 percent above what they charged immediately before the disaster. They can, however, raise prices if the increase is due to factors unrelated to the emergency (such as a rise in international petroleum prices), but they can’t increase their profit margins.
Additionally, the act is in effect for another 180 days for prices involving repairs, remodeling and construction. Businesses can be fined up to $10,000 per violation, plus costs.
If past disasters are any guide, Oklahoma investigators are likely to find a range of problems. In the aftermath of a tornado that killed 161 people in Joplin, Mo., in 2011, the state attorney general’s office received more than 700 complaints about price gouging, fraud and other consumer protection violations.
"The people of Joplin were our eyes and ears, calling in information and tips which allowed us to respond," said Ron Carrier, chief counsel for the southwest region in the Missouri attorney general’s office.
The office has two suits pending against towing companies that "charged exorbitant amounts for services rendered without disclosing the costs beforehand" and towed away cars without the owners’ permission, Carrier said.
Earlier this month, Attorney General Chris Koster filed a suit against a home repair contractor, alleging that he failed to provide construction materials and home-repair services that had been paid for by tornado victims. It was the office’s sixth such case against a contractor. The office also sued two purported charities and settled a lawsuit against a landlord who jacked up rents after the disaster, requiring restitution and an apology.
Hurricane Sandy triggered its share of lawsuits as well. Earlier this month, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that his office had sued four gas stations for price gouging and had reached settlements totaling $167,850 with 25 others. Some stations increased their mark-up on gas by more than 100 percent after the storm. "Ripping off New Yorkers during a time of crisis is against the law," Schneiderman said.
New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa has sued 15 hotels and motels and 12 gas stations for price gouging. A Days Inn in East Parsippany, for example, allegedly increased room rates by 204 percent, from $62.10 per night to $189.00, after the hurricane. Two gas stations settled price-gouging allegations in April for $46,000.
Contact Jenna Greene at firstname.lastname@example.org.