Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist today filed the first round of civil complaints over price gouging and deceptive and unfair trade practices of consumers as they fled the fury of Hurricane Charley.
In two separate civil complaints, the Attorney General's Office alleges that a Days Inn in West Palm Beach and the Crossroads Motor Lodge in Lakeland charged "unconscionable" rates, substantially higher than their regular rates, to consumers seeking shelter from the storm.
The civil complaints, filed in West Palm Beach and Lakeland, are the first to be filed as a result of Hurricane Charley under Florida's price gouging statute. Provisions of the statute took effect when Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency on August 10, 2004.
Investigators in the Attorney General's Office are looking into more than approximately 1,200 complaints already filed by consumers, and additional complaints are being received continuously at the Attorney General's price gouging hotline, 1-800-646-0444.
"Hurricane Charley is the worst natural disaster to befall our state in a dozen years, and it is unthinkable that anyone would try to take advantage of neighbors at a time like this. We are taking a two-pronged approach to fight this egregious behavior, " said Crist. "Families putting their lives back together should not have to worry about price gouging."
According to the West Palm Beach complaint, a billboard in close proximity to the Days Inn Airport at 2300 45th Street in West Palm Beach advertised rooms for less than $50 per night. Instead, the hotel charged more than double that amount to three consumers who filed affidavits.
Two of the consumers were forced to pay $109 per night, while the third was charged $119. Each of the consumers indicated that the hotel told them it had "only two rooms left," creating an increased sense urgency to pay the inflated price.
The Polk County complaint alleges that Crossroads Motor Lodge, at 3223 U.S. Highway 98 North in Lakeland, advertised rooms available for the night of August 13 at a rate of $44.79, including taxes and fees. According to three affidavits taken by Attorney General's investigators in support of the complaint, one consumer, who is 85 years old, made a reservation only to have it dishonored; she eventually was able to obtain a room for $61.27 37 percent more than the original rate.
A second consumer, a woman with five children, made reservations and paid cash but the hotel later told her all rooms were taken. Her request for a refund was then refused. The third consumer also made reservations, paid cash and was later told there were no available rooms. This consumer did receive a refund.
Crist on Saturday created the Attorney General's Hurricane Task Force, designed to stop the potential onslaught of price gougers emerging in the wake of Hurricane Charley. Criminal and civil investigators from the Attorney General's Office have been mobilized statewide for a crackdown on price gouging on items that are in high demand following a hurricane such as food, water, hotels, ice, gasoline, generators and lumber.
Florida's price gouging statute requires that the cost of necessities like food and water must remain at the price that was average during the 30 days immediately preceding a major storm like Hurricane Charley. Otherwise, violators of the price gouging statute are subject to civil penalties of $1,000 per violation up to a total of $25,000 for multiple violations committed in a single 24-hour period.
Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act provides for civil penalties of $10,000 per violation or $15,000 for violations that victimize a senior citizen or handicapped person.