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Price-gouging complaints balloon in Florida

| Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, 1:06 p.m.
This Sept. 6, 2017 file photo shows Carli Andrade of Miami, pumping gas at a Costco gas station, in North Miami, Fla. With images of Hurricane Harvey's wrath in Texas still fresh and 25-year-old memories of Hurricane Andrew's destruction, warnings that Hurricane Irma might be the long-dreaded 'big one' has brought many Floridians close to panic. Lines for gas, food and supplies stretched outside businesses as the South Florida region of more than 6 million people rushed to prepare for Hurricane Irma
This Sept. 6, 2017 file photo shows Carli Andrade of Miami, pumping gas at a Costco gas station, in North Miami, Fla. With images of Hurricane Harvey's wrath in Texas still fresh and 25-year-old memories of Hurricane Andrew's destruction, warnings that Hurricane Irma might be the long-dreaded 'big one' has brought many Floridians close to panic. Lines for gas, food and supplies stretched outside businesses as the South Florida region of more than 6 million people rushed to prepare for Hurricane Irma
Robert Johnson fills gas containers at a gas station in Miami, Florida on September 8, 2017, ahead of Hurricane Irma.
Florida Governor Rick Scott warned that all of the state's 20 million inhabitants should be prepared to evacuate as Hurricane Irma bears down for a direct hit on the southern US state.
AFP/Getty Images
Robert Johnson fills gas containers at a gas station in Miami, Florida on September 8, 2017, ahead of Hurricane Irma. Florida Governor Rick Scott warned that all of the state's 20 million inhabitants should be prepared to evacuate as Hurricane Irma bears down for a direct hit on the southern US state.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Florida residents have already made more than 4,000 complaints with state Attorney General Pam Bondi's price-gouging hotline.

Officials said they expect those numbers will rise when Hurricane Irma is gone.

Most of the complaints filed so far deal with excessive prices being charged for water, ice and fuel, a spokeswoman for the office said. The initial calls came mostly from Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

“But as people began evacuating, the price-gouging complaints have moved north too,” said spokeswoman Kylie Mason.

Many South Floridians were outraged by the excessive prices charged by some for essential items as they prepared for the storm.

After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, there were reports of some businesses charging $20 for a gallon of gas and $99 for a case of water, according to state officials. Many of the hundreds of complaints logged in the days after that storm dealt with gas stations charging $6 to $8 per gallon.

Others complained they were charged double the normal prices for hotel rooms.

State laws, enacted after Hurricane Andrew, prohibit extreme increases in the price of essentials - food, water, ice, gasoline, lumber and hotel rooms that people need in an emergency.

Violators face civil penalties of $1,000 per violation and up to $25,000 for multiple violations in a 24-hour period.

The law compares the price of the item or service during the state of emergency to the average price charged in the month before an emergency is declared. Investigators call it price gouging if there is a “gross disparity” between the two charges.

In South Florida, some consumers said they understood the tradeoff they were making and chose convenience and necessity over frugality as the hurricane loomed.

Plantation resident Samantha Downie said she knows she paid about twice the normal price for three empty gas cans to store fuel for her family's generator. But she says it was worth it for the convenience.

“I didn't mind the prices, actually, as it was that or go without my generator working,” Downie said. “I had ordered everything else - like batteries and water - on Amazon, but forgot the cans and it was too late to order them.”

After hurricanes, investigators say, scams involving charities and home repairs are expected to escalate.

Bondi is working with GoFundMe, which allows organizations and individuals to solicit online donations from the public, to try to stop fraudsters from taking advantage of people who want to help victims of the storm.

“She has reached out to GoFundMe and is working with them to be proactive and let us know about any suspicious activity they see so that we can investigate it and take any appropriate action,” Mason said.

GoFundMe spokesman Bobby Whithorne said contributors are protected by the company's guarantee that “the funds go to the right place or donors will get their money back.”

Charitable organizations must register with the state before soliciting contributions in Florida, and those that raise $50,000 or more after natural disasters or other crises must submit specific information, said Commissioner Adam Putnam.

The groups also have to report contribution amounts and the amount of money spent on the charity's expenses so donors can make informed decisions after learning what percentage of their money will go to those in need and how much is spent on administrative costs.

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