As thousands wait for plumbers, some allege price gouging

Travis County

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Viewers have reached out to claim price gouging during the recent winter storm that devastated Texas. We’ve heard the complaints about food, water and lodging, but some claim plumbers are engaging in the practice as well.

Kristie Nelson of Dripping Springs says her tankless water heater was no match for the elements last week. She told us she was surprised to learn her usual company — Mustang Plumbing — was charging $400 per hour.

“The pricing was over 50% more than what they’d usually charge,” she said.

When KXAN called Mustang Plumbing, an employee told us prices have been higher, because Mustang Plumbing has been using two-person crews. The employee said it was for safety reasons, in case of injury or burnout at a time the company is getting hundreds of calls. The employee added only this weekend was the price as high as $400 an hour.

Nelson calls it taking advantage of people, as many people wait multiple weeks for plumbers to come out and fix broken water pipes, among other issues.

“Plumbers who are price gouging are going to make a killing right now and are going to get away with it,” she said.

The Texas Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act says it is a false, misleading or deceptive to take advantage of a disaster by “selling or leasing fuel, food, medicine, lodging, building materials, construction tools, or another necessity at an exorbitant or excessive price,” or simply demanding these prices.

While plumbing isn’t specifically mentioned under the Texas statutes, the language includes a qualifier that applies to “any necessity.”

“I do believe that in this instance we’re in right now, plumbing services would absolutely be a necessity,” said Travis County Attorney Delia Garza.

Garza’s office is now allowing people to report price gouging allegations. She said she believes her office could respond to local complaints more quickly than the Texas Attorney General because of the vast number of price gouging complaints AG Ken Paxton’s office is already getting from around the state.

Garza said her office has received more than 20 price-gouging tips since setting up the tip-line last week.

Her staff has looked back at previous cases but couldn’t find the precedent for what constitutes an exorbitant or excessive plumbing cost. She says ultimately, each complaint will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

“Unfortunately, the law is not very clear about what an exorbitant cost is,” she said. “It’s a very vague legal test right now that we haven’t been able to, essentially test.”

Garza said there will be an emphasis on education over enforcement, adding that her office would send out cease-and-desist letters, informing businesses their activity could be illegal. If all else fails, the County Attorney’s office has the power to file lawsuits or injunctions against businesses.

The Texas Office of Attorney General enforces price gouging laws. A spokesperson for the office said price gouging isn’t based on price alone, and businesses can determine prices for their products.

“However, if a disaster has been declared by the Governor of Texas 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 a complaint should be filed with our office concerning the incident.”

A price gouger could be hit with a civil penalty of $10,000 per violation and up to $250,000 if the consumers are elderly, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

To file a consumer complaint, click here.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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