Number of winter storm price gouging complaints nears 2,000

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Office of Attorney General received nearly 2,000 price gouging complaints during, and following, February’s devastating winter storm that left millions without power and running water, according to records obtained by KXAN.

A total of 1,960 complaints were filed between Feb. 13-26. Utility and electric companies received the most complaints of any type of business. Griddy Energy topped the list with the most complaints — 378 — of any single company. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, came second with 128 complaints, according to state records. ERCOT manages the state’s electrical grid and has been sued for its handling of the winter storm crisis.

Griddy, an electricity company that served people in and around Houston, based its customers’ energy costs on wholesale rather than fixed prices. When the winter storm hit, those wholesale prices ballooned and left some customers with massive bills. One woman filed a class-action lawsuit after getting a $9,340 electricity bill for mid-February. Griddy has since filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has been sued by Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Griddy previously said in a statement, “we have always been transparent and customer-centric at every step. We wanted to continue the fight for our members to get relief and that hasn’t changed.”

See how many complaints each type of Texas business received below.

For perspective, Paxton’s office received over 5,000 price gouging complaints following Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and just 68 after Hurricane Laura last August.

The worst of the winter storm began around Feb. 14. A massive cold front and storm brought frigid temperatures and blanketed swaths of the state in snow and ice. Power generators buckled and struggled to provide enough electrical supply. The state’s electricity grid came within minutes of a complete overload. ERCOT ordered power reduction, and thousands in the state were plunged into a blackout and left without power for days while temperatures remained below freezing, including periods of single-digit cold, for nearly a week.

Harris County alone confirmed 32 deaths related to the winter storm. Fifteen of those deaths were from hypothermia. Christopher Pineda, an 11-year-old boy from Conroe, died in his sleep in an unheated home after playing in the snow.

The freezing cold burst pipes in thousands of houses and businesses and destroyed equipment like tankless water heaters and other plumbing. Texans fled their homes in search of hotel rooms with heat and waited in long lines at grocery stores for water and supplies. Meanwhile, the complaints began rolling into Paxton’s office.

By Feb. 14, Paxton’s office had received just seven complaints. Within two days Paxton’s office would be receiving over 100 complaints per day for a week straight.

The Attorney General receives price gouging complaints. During a disaster declared by the governor or president, it is illegal to sell, lease or demand exorbitant prices for “fuel, food, medicine, lodging, building materials, construction tools, or another necessity,” according to the Attorney General’s Office.

But high prices alone don’t necessarily constitute price gouging. Exactly what may be deemed “exorbitant” or “excessive” depends on circumstances. A business hiking up its prices specifically during a disaster could be an indicator of price gouging, according to the Attorney General.

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