Fighting price gouging as Florence recovery gets underway

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As those in the path of Hurricane Florence begin picking up the pieces, the risk of unsavory business practices grows.

While price gouging in the traditional sense may wind down as supplies of fuel, water and other necessities begin making their way into the Cape Fear region, there are other concerns District Attorney Ben David has for consumers.

“There’s a lot of good and reputable people who are trying to help us right now in private industry, and we understand that they have a job to do, but there are also some unsavory folks,” David said.

With any emergency declaration, price gouging becomes illegal from the time of the declaration until 45 days have passed.

“Price gouging is defined as excessive pricing in the wake of an emergency situation, which is of course what we’ve experienced here in North Carolina,” David said.

He said Attorney General Josh Stein’s office has received more than 650 complaints of price gouging related to Hurricane Florence, most of them regarding gas stations or businesses selling water.

“Which are much easier cases to prove, because those are commodities which are set by the market,” he said. “It’s much harder to establish price gouging when you’re talking about clean up of your yard, or repairs to your home, because now, there’s huge variability there.”

What one contractor may quote for a home could be thousands of dollars more or less expensive than the next one, and quotes can vary based on a home’s size, the extent of the damage and many other factors.

This inherent flexibility in pricing makes it hard to pursue criminal prosecution for price gouging specifically.

However, David said there are things consumers can do to protect themselves.

When getting a quote, he said, the keys are to shop around, get it in writing and don’t pay until the work is done.

“Make sure that you don’t take the first quote that comes to your house,” he reiterated, adding that consumers should also ask for recommendations and proof of insurance and make sure that the contract looks legitimate.

David said that while there is some legal recourse if a contractor takes your money without doing the work promised, it’s much easier to just avoid the issue all together.

“You have to be the first line of defense and protect yourself by following those three rules,” he said.

When it comes to items such as generators, chainsaws or other equipment people need in the aftermath of a storm like Florence, David said it can be tricky to determine what is price gouging, and what is within the range of the free market.

Regardless, he said, consumers should report any suspicious business practices to local authorities as well as the state attorney general.

To report price gouging, call (877) 5-NO-SCAM, or (877) 566-7226.