Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Tough Laws Aim at Price Gouging Big Fines Imposed in Georgia, Florida

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Tough Laws Aim at Price Gouging Big Fines Imposed in Georgia, Florida

Article excerpt

Hurricane Floyd has passed, but officials in Georgia and Florida warn that natural disasters can bring out the worst in humans who overcharge desperate consumers for goods and services.

Both states have strict laws against price gouging. Those laws include basic staples such as water and food, gasoline, plywood and hotel rooms.

IN FLORIDA:

After Hurricane Andrew left South Florida in ruins in 1992, state officials were flooded with complaints that merchants jacked up the prices of items needed to rebuild their lives.

So the state enacted a law that prohibits price gouging whenever the governor declares a state of emergency. Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency Monday.

Under Florida law, gouging constitutes a price that "grossly exceeds the average price at which the same or similar commodity was available within the past 30 days," said Tom Stephens, president of the Better Business Bureau in Jacksonville.

The law remains in effect for the duration of the state of emergency. Violators face a fine up to $1,000 per infraction, said Bob McElroy, Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services spokesman.

For example, if a gasoline station charged $1 a gallon last week and upped the price to $3 a gallon this week, the station owner would face charges for every customer who paid the higher price, McElroy said.

The law is intentionally vague and doesn't specify how much of an increase is too much, he said. Those determinations are left to prosecutors to decide on a case-by-case basis.

For example, if the price of lumber goes up and lumber retailers have to pay more to stock their shelves, they may be able to pass that added cost to the consumer, McElroy said.

However, he stressed that "we have to have some evidence that this constitutes a substantial increase."

If a gallon of bottled water ordinarily costs $1 and a merchant now is charging $1.10, that might not necessarily be gouging, Stephens said. But if the merchant is charging $2 or $3 for that same bottled water, it is gouging, he said.

IN GEORGIA:

The law, which was enacted in 1975, is similar to the Florida law but carries stricter penalties, said Bill Cloud, a spokesman for the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs in Atlanta. …

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