FTC Urged to Police Price Gouging in Wake of Harvey, Irma

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By Alexei Alexis

Top Republicans and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee Sept. 8 urged the Federal Trade Commission to monitor any price gouging in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

In a letter to the commission, Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), the committee’s chairman and ranking member, pointed to “numerous” reports that some businesses are using the hurricanes as an opportunity to jack up prices for essential items such as fuel, food, and drinking water.

The problem also has drawn attention from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R).

“Americans who are fleeing their homes to seek shelter from rising floodwaters and other hurricane impacts should not be further victimized by disaster profiteers,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Judiciary Committee leaders urged the FTC to actively watch the situation and investigate cases of inflated prices where appropriate. The FTC has the authority to investigate any activity deemed unfair to competition or is fraudulent or misleading.

The letter was also signed by Reps. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who lead the panel’s antitrust subcommittee.

“We take members’ concerns very seriously, and we are reviewing the letter,” said FTC spokesman Peter Kaplan.

Consumer Complaints

Since Aug. 25, Paxton’s office has received more than 3,000 complaints about scams, fraud, and price gouging connected with Hurricane Harvey, Paxton spokeswoman Kayleigh Lovvorn told Bloomberg BNA. Several cases are under investigation, she said.

“In a few specific cases, we’ve seen $3.50 [per gallon] for gas in Houston, $8.50 for bottles of water and $99 case of water complaints,” Lovvorn told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail. “We also received a complaint about one Houston convenience store charging $20 per gallon of gas and have issued a CID [civil investigative demand] directly to that business.”

Bondi’s office has indicated that it’s prepared take action on any similar complaints connected to Hurricane Irma.

“Floridians need to prepare now and they should not be inhibited by unlawful price increases on supplies necessary to brace for a major hurricane strike,” Bondi said in a Sept. 4 statement announcing a price gouging hotline for Florida consumers.

State law prohibits extreme increases in the price of essential commodities needed as a direct result of an officially declared emergency, the statement warned, adding that violators 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.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexei Alexis in Washington at aalexis@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bna.com

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