|By Jannell McGrew, Montgomery Advertiser, Ala.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jul. 13, 2005 - Aside from collapsed roofs, power outages and downed trees, there is at least one other nasty fallout this week from Hurricane Dennis: price gouging.
Alabama Attorney General Troy King said Tuesday that investigators have received more than 800 calls from people complaining that some businesses are charging too much for some items in the aftermath of Hurricane Dennis.
There were 653 complaints of gas pricing; 42 for generator pricing; 24 for lodging; and 11 for food. Other complaints included battery, water, ice, building material and car rental pricing.
King said unscrupulous contractors, businesses and individuals who profit illegally in Alabama from damage caused by Hurricane Dennis will be arrested and held to account.
"It just brings out the worst side of human nature," King said Tuesday. "It brings out those who want to take advantage. We just will not tolerate anyone attempting to profiteer off of this destruction."
The attorney general's investigative division has 12 investigators. Four continue to respond to the complaints.
Although what constitutes an unconscionable price is not specifically set forth in state law, a price that is 25 percent or more than the average price charged in the same area within the last 30 days -- unless the increase can be attributed to a reasonable cost -- is generally considered a case of unconscionable pricing.
The penalty is a fine of up to $1,000 per violation, and those determined to have willfully and continuously violated the law may be prohibited from doing business in Alabama.
"If somebody engages in a pattern of price gouging, they could lose their business licenses; they could be liable for restitution to their victims," King said. "We take these complaints very, very seriously."
State Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks agreed with King.
"It nauseates me that someone would charge $5 for ice to someone who is trying to keep their insulin or baby formula cool," Sparks said.
King said the 809 complaints received to date have included reports of extravagant prices for food, generators, batteries and motel rooms. King said some of the complaints about the price of gas may not have stemmed from price-gouging since the price of gas has been rising steadily in recent months and went up about 4 cents a gallon in most areas last week. But he said every report will be investigated.
Sparks said his department is also looking into reports of other unscrupulous activity by merchants, such as selling regular gasoline as high octane, or selling 20 pounds of an item and charging the price for 50 pounds.
Emergency responders continued to distribute water, food and ice to hurricane victims Tuesday.
In those areas where power outages left some without access to grocery items they needed, workers passed out provisions that included military rations or Meals Ready to Eat.
At a news conference at state emergency management headquarters in Clanton on Tuesday, Gov. Bob Riley noted the collapsed buildings, downed trees and roof damage in counties hit with Dennis' violent winds.
Today, he and Alabama Emergency Management Agency Director Bruce Baughman will meet with public officials in Escambia and Monroe counties to discuss Hurricane Dennis relief and recovery efforts.
By Tuesday evening, Alabama Power Co. had restored service to 94.4 percent of customers who lost power during the hurricane.
As of 4:30 p.m., 13,307 customers remained without power statewide, down from a peak of 241,214.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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