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Jan Lee headshot

Florida Launches Hotline to Combat Price Gouging

By Jan Lee

There's been no lack of stories about companies that have stepped up to assist Houston hurricane victims after Harvey made landfall last month. Heartfelt concern and business innovation are both contributing to improving options for those impacted by flooding and damage.

Airbnb waived fees and encouraged landlords to open their rentals for free to people left homeless or stranded by Harvey.

Google has created a new SOS app to help keep Harvey victims out of harm's way as they attempt to find shelter and safety. It's an innovation that may well come into use in Florida this week after Hurricane Irma has finished making landfall in and around the state's most populous cities.

But for now, Florida's Attorney General Pam Bondi sees other risk factors at play, and she has been moving quickly to set up the state's own "SOS" hotline to deal with it.

Complaints of price gouging by transportation and fuel companies who stand to prosper from the fall out of the country's biggest hurricane have been flooding  the attorney general's office. Most irksome to the AG's office, perhaps, are those gas stations that tried to raise their fuel prices in anticipation of Irma's wallop. The state used its clout and police escorts to ensure that gasoline tankers could make it to south Florida as quickly as possible in advance of Irma's arrival.

Chevron, which supplies gas stations up and down Florida's coastlines, has come under fire for complaints of price gouging. The company says it does not operate the stations directly and has told the stations sporting its brand that it has no tolerance for price gouging.

Still, Bondi issued a message to Chevron this weekend via Fox News.

"So Chevron, if you’re watching me right now, you need to call us and tell us why your prices are inflated in south Florida,” said Bondi.

For its part, Chevron says it has already made sure that gas stations supplying Chevron and Texaco gas understand they must comply with all laws.

According to the AG's office, it's already received more than 8,000 complaints of price gouging for essentials like water, food and gas.

One caller complained that a Shell gas station in Orlando (home of Disney World) had raised its prices to more than $5 a gallon.

Penalties are stiff under Florida's price-gouging law. Violators can be charged as much as $25,000 for multiple violations in a 24-hour period.

Still, the attorney general's office will have its investigative work cut out for itself in the coming weeks. The price of airline seats also shot up in south Florida as residents and tourists scrambled to leave, with some consumers finding seat prices doubling or tripling.

Snopes, which is known for its ability to dig deeply into controversial (and sometimes fabricated) claims, has already done some of the research work on airlines that allegedly boosted their prices. Snapshots of United Airlines web pages with prices for Miami departures ranging above $2,000 could be found on Snopes' site, with a list of price changes the airline later implemented after consumers complained and in order to "get folks out" of harm's way.

While United and Delta later capped their prices for South Florida departures at $399 (after Delta received scathing rebukes for ticket prices that ranged from $500 to $3,200 last week), JetBlue announced early in the evacuation process that it would be capping all of its Florida departures at $99.

In defending United's pricing, the company's spokesperson Frank Benenati told Snopes that the company was attempting to do the right thing and some of the exhorbitant prices were the result of "glitches" and were later corrected. But he admitted that the recent spate of natural disasters present a "new dynamic" that will challenge airlines "to do the best that they can in the situation that's presented to them."

And with some pro-active airlines being willing to shave off profit in trade for some excellent publicity and good leadership, that new dynamic is liable to get even more challenging for companies that -- right or wrong -- aren't seen by consumers as doing their absolute most to help during a disaster.

Images: Flickr/Florida National Guard; Flickr/John Spade

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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