Hurricane Laura price gouging complaints rolling into AG’s office

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Price gouging complaints related to Hurricane Laura are already rolling into the Texas Office of Attorney General, which confirmed it received 33 complaints by Thursday morning.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has the authority to investigate and prosecute price gouging during a declared disaster, which occurs when a business exorbitantly increases prices to profit on necessities, such as “fuel, food, medicine, lodging, building materials, construction tools, or another necessity,” according to the AG’s office.

Complaints received by Paxton’s office so far include:

  • Gas: 12
  • Hotels: 9
  • Grocery/Convenience: 6
  • Home supplies (mostly plywood): 5
  • Misc: 1

“My message to those who are actually price gouging is don’t do it because we will investigate you, and you will end up paying the money back, and it will end up costing you as a business more, and it also hurts your reputation,” Paxton said in an interview with KXAN Wednesday. “It is not something you want to do. Just be fair with consumers, and I think your consumer base will appreciate that.”

Paxton said his office will pursue valid complaints of both online and brick-and-mortar retail price gouging and seek restitution for consumers.

“If a consumer feels like they have been price gouged they can either go online to our website, or they can call our hotline and talk to an individual who can walk through with them what actually happened,” Paxton said. “There are basically two ways to do it.”

It is not clear what exactly the 33 complaints regarded. KXAN has asked for more specifics on the types of price gouging complaints and for copies of the originals.

Gov. Greg Abbott first issued a disaster declaration related to Hurricane Laura on Aug. 23. The storm has since strengthened to a Category 4 storm with wind speeds of 140 mph. It is expected to make landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border early Thursday morning. The National Hurricane Center anticipates an “unsurvivable storm surge” that could travel up to 30 miles inland and catastrophic storm winds near the hurricane’s eye.

Hunt for gas gougers

In the hours before Laura spun onto the Texas coast, we were out hunting for price gougers along two main evacuation routes leaving Houston. Emergency officials opened two evacuation shelters in North Texas in the cities of Ennis and Mesquite.

KXAN set out to document gas prices along U.S. 290 and Interstate 45.

Prices posted at gas stations in downtown Austin were between $1.89 and $1.99 per gallon for regular unleaded Wednesday evening. Stations along Interstate 35 in Temple, Waco, West and at the Italy exit at mile marker 386 all showed prices between $1.79 and $1.99 a gallon. All of the stations were within the range of the $1.90 average price-per-gallon in Texas posted to the AAA website at the time and did not appear to be exorbitant.

In Ennis, an Exxon station on Highway 287 offered gas for $1.99 a gallon for regular unleaded. From there, we headed south on Interstate 45 toward Houston. KXAN checked dozens of gas stations’ prices along the route. A Chevron station in Huntsville offered the cheapest fuel, at a cash price of $1.73 a gallon.

A Phillips 66 station in Huntsville was selling gas for $2.19 a gallon—the highest of any other gas station we documented along I-45.

The lowest price we found along the Highway 290 evacuation route between Houston and Austin was $1.60 a gallon at the Buc-ee’s in Waller. The highest price we found along Highway 290 was at a Chevron station in Brenham with the price-per-gallon set at $2.15.

Price gouging during Hurricane Harvey

The AG’s office ultimately received over 5,000 complaints of price gouging following  Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

KXAN uncovered price gouging at a Best Western Plus hotel in Robstown, near Corpus Christi. That investigation resulted in the hotel losing its license and affiliation with Best Western, and 40 customers received refunds. Best Western apologized for the incident and said it was offended by the Robstown franchise’s conduct.

The AG’s office announced in 2018 it had reached settlements totaling over $167,000 against gas stations that gouged prices, charging more than $3.99 per gallon and up to $8.99, during Hurricane Harvey.

“If a disaster has been declared by the Governor of Texas or the President, and businesses raise the price of their products to exorbitant or excessive rates to take advantage of the disaster declaration, then it is quite likely that price gouging is taking place, and you should file a complaint with our office concerning the incident,” according to the AG.

A spokesperson for Paxton’s office said, “consumers who encounter unfair pricing or business practices are always welcome to file a complaint with our office either online or over the phone. Complaints can be filed online here: http://txoag.force.com/CPDOnlineForm, or through email at consumeremergency@oag.texas.gov, and our consumer protection hotline is 800-621-0508.”

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