Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist has activated a toll-free hotline and urged Florida consumers to report suspected price gouging associated with Hurricane Charley. The Attorney General's action follows Governor Bush's official declaration of an emergency for the State of Florida.

"It is important for Floridians to know that they will be protected from any potential price gouger during either of these storms, Bonnie or Charley," said Crist. "Safety is the first priority, then we need to take care of our property and possessions."

Those who suspect price gouging should call the hotline at 1-800-646-0444 (Florida only). Investigators will then look into the complaint. Florida law prohibits extreme increases in the price of such commodities as food, water, hotels, ice, gasoline, lumber and equipment necessary for use as a direct result of an officially declared emergency.

"We know that our fellow citizens can be devastated by what is happening and they will need our help," said Crist. "Unfortunately, there are those who would seek to profit from the misery of others. Anyone who seeks to charge unconscionable prices for vital goods should be warned that they will face the full force of Florida law. We encourage Floridians to report suspicious price increases to the hotline. Price gouging will not be tolerated."

Florida law states that a commodity price is unconscionable if it represents a "gross disparity" from the average price of that commodity during the 30 days immediately prior to the emergency. This applies unless the increase is attributable to additional costs incurred by the seller or to national or international market trends.

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.

The Attorney General also cautioned consumers to be wary of business scams that might arise in the wake of Tropical Storms Bonnie and Charley, including itinerant building repair and tree removal services. Crist said residents should deal whenever possible with local established companies for repairs or for financing to pay for any repairs that might not be covered by insurance.

Consumers should be wary about a "contractor" who knocks on the door with an offer to fix a roof or windows. Before signing any contracts, they should check the contractor's license, payment terms and other provisions.