Price gouging

Desperate times, illegal measures: Price gouging is not just despicable, it’s illegal

A Florida law, passed after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, forbids renting or selling essential food, ice, water, gasoline, building materials and other items, or lodging or storage, for amounts that “grossly exceed” the average price 30 days before a state of emergency was declared.

Luxury items, such as alcohol or cigarettes, aren’t included.

The seller is off the hook if he or she can show outside forces justify the price.

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

Selling goods or services during a state of emergency without an occupational license is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The law is enforced by Florida’s attorney general, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and local state attorney’s offices.

During the 2004 hurricanes, the state attorney general’s office received more than 8,900 reports.

If you suspect you’re being gouged, get as much information as possible: estimates, invoices, receipts or bills.

When comparing products make sure to note the product’s name, size or quantity, manufacturer, item number and unit price.

For lumber products, note the grade, thickness and quality.

For a service such as storage or towing, note the per mile (or other distance) charge, removal charges, per-day storage charge and other charges such as security, cleanup or other “add-ons.”

Even if prices seem reasonable, you can still be ripped off. If someone’s selling generators off a pickup on a street corner, they may well be stolen, or defective.

The best way to avoid being gouged is to have all supplies BEFORE the storm.

State hot line: 800-HELP FLA (800-435-7352)

Better Business Bureau of Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties: (800) 834-1267, www.bbbsoutheast

Palm Beach County Consumer Affairs Division: (561) 712-6600

International Hurricane Protection Association: (561) 282-3315