Hurricane

With Dorian comes gouging and fraud. Here’s how to protect yourself and others

The elements of every hurricane aren’t just wind and water. They’re also fraud and price-gouging.

Here’s what to do when you encounter the latter two.

Wednesday, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody activated Florida’s Price Gouging Hotline, 1-866-9NO-SCAM (966-7226). Also, there’s a free NO SCAM app from the attorney general’s office that can be downloaded through Apple and Android stores.

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Of course, the best way to avoid price-gouging is to have your hurricane survival kit prepared throughout hurricane season, as the state of Florida, every municipality and every media outlet reminds the public to do at the start of every hurricane season.

But, not everybody’s able to do that and some who are able aren’t willing. So, let’s talk about gouging.

Price-gouging occurs both in the late preparation stages before a storm and in the immediate aftermath. A price increase isn’t automatically gouging. The law grants wiggle room for prices to be moved by supply and demand and what-the-market-will-bear. Nor is a price disparity alone, i.e., Publix store brand water vs. Winn-Dixie’s store brand water, evidence of gouging.

Florida statute 501.160 says a stated price reaches the level of gouging when the “amount charged grossly exceeds the average price at which the same or similar commodity was readily obtainable in the trade area during the 30 days immediately prior to a declaration of a state of emergency.”

After the governor declares a state of emergency, it’s illegal to rent or sell “at an unconscionable price ... any essential commodity including, but not limited to, supplies, services, provisions, or equipment that is necessary for consumption or use as a direct result of the emergency.”

That includes food, water, ice, gas and lumber.

If you think you’re seeing price-gouging:

Gather evidence of the gouging price. Take pictures of signs, tags, receipts with the stated price. If you have the time, find a more standard price on the product in the area for comparison.

If you have receipts from buying the item at a normal price during the previous month, keep those.

For lodging, be sure to note the type of room and how you reserved it.

For lumber, be sure to note size, grade, thickness and quality.

As far as fraud, remember the basic rule: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Also, if someone wants to do repair work on your home, ask for a contractor’s license number. To search for a license by number, name or type, consult this space on the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation site.

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Since 1989, David J. Neal’s domain at the Miami Herald has expanded to include writing about Panthers (NHL and FIU), Dolphins, old school animation, food safety, fraud, naughty lawyers, bad doctors and all manner of breaking news. He drinks coladas whole. He does not work Indianapolis 500 Race Day.
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