Spotting price gouging when Hurricane Dorian threatened SWFL

Reporter: Sara Girard
Published: Updated:

More than 130 people in Southwest Florida complained of price gouging before Hurricane Dorian. But it is not always clear what constitutes the charge.

When a storm like Dorian heads our way, it is always a mad dash for supplies.

“I’m filling up five gas cans to get ready for my generator,” said Russ Rosen, when the storm was projected to hit Southwest Florida. “Which is hopefully not going to be used for the hurricane.”

In the last week and a half, WINK News showed you the desperation, long lines and empty shelves. And with powerful storms like Dorian, there come reports of price gouging. People say stores are charging too much for the essentials.

Price gouging laws go into effect during a State of Emergency, which ensures that state and local governments have ample time, resources and flexibility to prepare. Those laws apply to necessary supplies like gas and water.

According to the Florida Attorney General’s Office, approximately 7,600 allegations of price gouging from Hurricane Irma were sent to the Consumer Protection Division for further review.

A representative wrote in an email:

“As of August 2019, for storm seasons of 2016, 2017 and 2018, over 3,300 consumers received refunds, credits or price adjustments amounting to over $550,000 in relief to consumers… We collected $173,000 in penalties and $178,000 in costs and fees. A few remaining cases from these storms are still active and will likely result in further relief.

“Violators of the price gouging statute are subject to civil penalties of $1,000 per violation and up to a total of $25,000 for multiple violations committed in a single 24-hour period.”

As for Dorian, the AG’s office got nearly 3,000 reports of price gouging statewide. There were 71 reports in Lee, 31 in Collier and 19 in Charlotte counties.

During a State of Emergency Declaration, the AG’s office received the following breakdown from consumers:

  • 2,994 reports regarding alleged price gouging received by Consumer Protection investigators;
  • Hundreds of reports remain under review and multiple price gouging investigations are active;
  • More than 180 store visits by the Attorney General’s Rapid Response Team;
  • 705 tips reported through the app NO SCAM;
  • Approximately $1,200 in refunds, credits or adjustments obtained so far and more recoveries expected as investigative efforts continue; and
  • More than 80 percent of reports concern fuel or water.

Jesse Wright, an economics instructor at Florida Gulf Coast University, studied price gouging during Hurricane Irma and said there isn’t necessarily a clear-cut indication.

“There’s no hard and fast rule that we can say, ‘ha this is the line you’ve crossed and now you’re price gouging,'” he said.

In his research, Wright found that before Hurricane Irma the market adjusted to the demand for gas and prices went up days before a state of emergency went into place. He makes the argument that, at least for gas, anti-price gouging laws are “inconsequential.”

Wright said the law leaves some wiggle room, taking into account supply and demand.

“That’s why the law might’ve been written a little bit vague,” Wright said. “Because we see, with inflation, we see gas prices go up over time, we see lots of prices of things go up over time.”

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