Storm-tossed Floridians prey to price gouging

First complaints filed

businessman raises price for `aggravation'

August 18, 2004|By Alfonso A. Castillo | Alfonso A. Castillo,NEWSDAY

CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. - The constant warnings by local authorities and the media about the potential for price gouging in Florida, where some 493,000 people are still without power because of Hurricane Charley, have many Floridians leery.

Maybe too leery, thinks Gary Bryant.

"The people act like everything you tell them is too high," said Bryant, owner of Bryant's Professional Tree Service, who drove from his home in Memphis, Tenn., looking to help people remove fallen trees from their homes.

Driving his truck around a residential neighborhood in Charlotte Harbor yesterday, Bryant said he found himself charging less than he usually does because nobody was biting.

"What's happened is people got on the radio and they got everybody in a panic," said Bryant. "I think that's wrong for business people that are willing to drive two days down here to help in the situation. ... We're just trying to get work."

Fear of fraud

Unfortunately for Bryant, price gouging incidents have residents fearing being taken advantage of. Despite their desperate longing for electric generators, gasoline, ice and other provisions, Florida residents still reeling from Friday's Category 4 hurricane are, for the most part, telling those offering costly goods and services to take a hike.

One woman said she saw somebody chase one off his lawn with a chainsaw.

"We already know about the hurricane gypsies," said Kay Hamin, pushing her loaded shopping cart out of the Publix supermarket in Port Charlotte yesterday. "They're out to make a buck. But it's not right. But then again, people are stupid if they buy it."

The office of Florida State Attorney General Charlie Crist has received about 1,200 complaints of alleged price gouging since Charley hit Friday, a spokesman said.

Yesterday, Crist announced that he has filed the first civil complaints of gouging and "deceptive and unfair trade practices" against two motels charging "unconscionable" rates to residents looking for shelter during the storm.

Violators are subject to $1,000 fines for each offense.

High charge; no refund

According to the complaint, a Days Inn in West Palm Beach advertised rooms for $50 a night but charged more than $100 to three consumers. In Lakeland, a mother of five allegedly paid cash at Crossroads Motor Lodge but was told all rooms were taken and then denied a refund.

"It is unthinkable that anyone would try to take advantage of neighbors at a time like this," Crist said in a statement yesterday.

State authorities and residents said some of the most egregious scams have come from the contracting industry, with several unlicensed contractors asking for and getting money up front for home repairs and cleanups, then never returning.

Many residents in Charlotte said yesterday that they had come in contact with rip-off artists or knew someone who did. "One guy bought a ... generator and it cost him $1,150," said Jim Simpson, "It should have been about, at the worst, $500."

Simpson, a clerk at an Ace Hardware store in Port Charlotte, heard dozens of similar stories from customers. "Myself, personally I think it's rotten because we're hurting down here," he said.

The accounts are endless: the man charging his next-door neighbor $100 an hour to clean debris off his yard; the people standing in line for free ice at one of several emergency service centers in the area, then driving through neighborhoods selling it at $4 a bag; the woman who filled 11 one-gallon tanks of gasoline and was charged for 15; the boy sent to the store with a $20 bill to buy two gallons of milk and returning home with $8 change.

"People are coming in here and saying, `I'll have your air-conditioner back on for you,'" said resident David Levine, 39, "and there's no electricity."

But, Levine said, the gouging exists because many people are willing to pay the exorbitant prices - afraid of what their alternatives might be. "When it comes down to it, you'll pay anything to keep your insulin refrigerated for your kid."

Way of the world

Jason Gerrish, owner of Tree Huggers tree removal company, drove from Miami with his crew of two and is charging twice his normal rate for services "because I've got to deal with more aggravation," he said.

"No one wants to come here when I can stay home and sleep in air conditioning, next to my wife and kid, go to the gas station whenever I want and get gas," said Gerrish, stopping to get a free lunch at a roadhouse diner giving away food and drinks.

"The ones who are willing to pay now know that they're not getting a great deal, but they're willing to pay a little bit more to get their lives together quicker," Gerrish said. "It's not necessarily right or wrong. But, I mean, that's kind of the way the world works."

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