Attorney General to look into price gouging charges

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

RALEIGH (AP) ó Attorneys general in Florida and North Carolina are issuing subpoenas to determine if gas stations in their respective states are gouging customers with price increases after Hurricane Ike struck the Texas coast.
And officials in other Southern states activated anti-price gouging laws or warned consumers to be on the lookout for unreasonble gasoline price hikes.
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum’s office announced Sunday it had issued subpoenas seeking invoices to justify price hikes at three separate chains around the state. Those brands are supplied by independent distributors.
A spokeswoman for North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said subpoenas would be mailed beginning Monday to determine if some stations are engaging in price gouging. His action, which was announced Saturday, followed word from Gov. Mike Easley, who on Friday declared a state of “abnormal market disruption” and signed an order allowing Cooper to enforce North Carolina’s anti-gouging law.
McCollum issued the subpoenas after receiving more than 350 complaints about gasoline price gouging over a four-day period.
“Price gouging is strictly prohibited in Florida during a declared state of emergency and my investigators have been working throughout the weekend to determine whether Floridians are being taken advantage of,” McCollum said in a statement. “Passing along a justifiable increase in cost to consumers is legal, but we will not tolerate gouging for greed.”
The subpoenas were issued to corporate offices of Flying J, Dodge’s Gas Stores, Valero and Pilot Travel Centers. Consumer complaints against the stations were reported to be particularly high in the Tampa region, south and central Florida, and Tallahassee and the Panhandle. The complaints began last Thursday, and officials said they had received 317 complaints about gasoline price gouging related to Ike.
McCollum’s office asked that the materials be provided within a week. Service of the subpoenas will begin Monday.
Cooper, who himself fielded complaints from upset consumers on Saturday, said his office would take action if it found any instances of gouging.
“Any station or any wholesaler that’s trying to take advantage of this situation and is gouging consumers will face the music from our office,” Cooper said in an interview with WRAL-TV in Raleigh.
The attorney general’s office will look for “unreasonably excessive” prices, Cooper said. “It’s one of those things where you know it when you see it.”
Spokeswoman Noelle Talley said the consumer protection office had received several hundred telephone calls on Saturday and was still receiving calls on Sunday. She did not have an exact number.
Late Friday, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed an executive order activating that state’s statute against price gouging that allows prosecution of stations that raise prices excessively. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley declared a state of emergency, activating that state’s price gouging law.
An Alabama law that prohibits “unconscionable pricing” of items for sale or rent goes into effect when the governor has declared a state of emergency.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said his office was looking into complaints of price gouging after the governor declared a state of emergency for Hurricane Gustav.
In Tennessee, Attorney General Robert Cooper issued a statement on Friday asking residents to be wary of price gougers.