Price gouging complaints abound during Austin boil water order

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — KXAN’s investigative unit fielded dozens of price gouging complaints in the hours after the city told its water customers the city’s tap water isn’t safe to drink without boiling it first.

Monday’s announcement caused thousands of people to search for bottled water. 

Viewers sent in pictures of gas stations with cases of bottled water priced up to $30. The cases normally sell for less than $5. We have receipts showing one customer bought two cases of water from a South Congress gas station and paid $15.98. 

But, as we learned during our investigation into hundreds of price gouging complaints during Hurricane Harvey, those prices may not mean you’ve been price gouged.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office explained to KXAN’s investigative team in 2017 that stores were calculating the price of a case of water based on what a single bottle of water was selling for in the store.

That means a $1.50 bottle of water would drive the price of a 24-pack case to $36.

That reasoning makes it tough for state investigators to prosecute a business for price gouging, the office told KXAN during our 2017 price gouging investigation. 

Of the more than 5,000 price gouging complaints filed with the attorney general in 2017, none of the prosecutions were for cases of bottled water, indicating the attorney general’s office did not find price hikes on cases of bottled water constituted a case of price gouging. 

The Texas Attorney General’s Office would not issue an opinion as to whether the bottled water complaints we’re seeing now constitute prosecutable price gouging cases when we contacted the office this week.

The AG’s Office instead asked that people with complaints contact the office’s Consumer Protection Hotline at 1 (800) 621-0508 or to file a complaint online at www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/cpd/file-a-consumer-complaint so those complaints could be investigated. The office also accepts complaints emailed to consumeremergency@oag.texas.gov.

As our 2017 Hurricane Harvey price gouging investigation found, the most important piece of evidence when filing a complaint is to keep a copy of the receipt. Without it, prosecuting a case of price gouging is much tougher. 

The state’s anti-price gouging laws only apply to counties where the governor declares a disaster. On Oct. 16, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared 17 counties a disaster stemming from the flooding in the following counties: Bastrop, Burnet, Colorado, Fayette, Hood, Jim Wells, Kerr, Kimble, La Salle, Live Oak, Llano, McMullen, Nueces, Real, San Patricio, Travis, and Williamson. 

On Oct. 19, Abbot added another 36 counties to the disaster declaration: Bandera, Baylor, Blanco, Brown, Callahan, Cameron, Coleman, Comanche, Eastland, Edwards, Erath, Gillespie, Hamilton, Haskell, Hidalgo, Jones, Kendall, Kinney, Lampasas, Liberty, Madison, Mills, Nolan, Palo Pinto, Parker, San Jacinto, San Saba, Shackelford, Somervell, Stephens, Taylor, Throckmorton, Uvalde, Walker, Willacy, and Zavala. 

Anyone with a complaint of suspected price gouging in any of these 53 counties on or after the dates listed above can file a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office. 

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