A Florida company accused of charging more than $37,000 to clear three trees after Hurricane Michael got shut down in North Carolina on Monday, part of an ongoing campaign against price gouging during emergencies.
N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s office has now brought six complaints against tree-removal companies doing work since Hurricane Florence struck in September, forcing them to stop work.
The latest case, against National Emergency Restoration Services, won a preliminary injunction from Wake County Superior Court Judge Keith Gregory, meaning the company cannot clear trees or collect payments in the state.
Earlier this month, Stein’s office won temporary restraining orders against two other firms. One is accused of charging more than $19,000 for four trees; another is being sued for billing a homeowner for $39,000, a price tag that included work the homeowner had completed himself.
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Prices vary for tree cutting, but the consumer website Angie’s List reports the average roughly between $1,200 and $1,500. Emergencies can raise the price because working conditions are riskier.
In its most recent complaint, the attorney general’s office said a homeowner in Guilford County had three trees blown down on his property during Hurricane Michael in October. One of the trees was left leaning against the house.
He got an unsolicited quote of $800 from one company, George of the Jungle Tree Service. But after the homeowner called USAA, his insurer, a second crew from National Emergency Restoration arrived and falsely said the insurance company had sent them, according to the state’s Jan. 16 complaint.
The homeowner signed a contract, believing USAA had sent the crew, then got a $37,200 bill for three trees and a tarp that covered part of the roof, the complaint said. Based on four men working 14 hours each, the rate works out to $664 an hour.
In court Monday, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Wilkes described the price as “outrageous” and accused National Emergency Restoration of deceptive trade practices.
In each case, the price-gouging occurred after Gov. Roy Cooper had declared a state of emergency. By state law, the attorney general’s office can seek refunds for victims and the courts can impose a $5,000 fine for each case.
Many of the cases in North Carolina involve out-of-state companies that arrive during the storm. National Emergency Restoration is based in Miami. The companies sued earlier this month are in Florida and Georgia.
Georgia Tree Co. from Alpharetta, Ga., is not authorized to work in North Carolina, said the state’s complaint against the firm. After Hurricane Florence in September, the company told an Onslow County man “not to worry,” and that he would pay only the deductible from his insurance company.
Later, he was billed more than $19,000. The state’s complaint estimates the rate at $513 an hour.
The other Florida company, Secure Restoration, told a flooding victim in New Bern that his bill would not top $5,000 then billed him for more than $39,000, the state’s complaint said. This scenario was repeated at a second New Bern house, where work was estimated at $12,000 then nearly doubled on the bill.
In both cases, the attorney general’s office said, the company threatened to place liens on their customers’ property.