In the aftermath of a natural disaster, Good Samaritans often undertake selfless acts to help their neighbors or complete strangers.
Others try to take advantage of people’s desperation with high prices.
In North Carolina, charging high prices for goods and services during disasters can be illegal, in violation of the state’s anti-price-gouging laws. And on Friday, when Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency due to Hurricane Florence, that put the state’s anti-price gouging laws into effect.
They will remain in place until the state of emergency ends, some time after the storm.
In the meanwhile, anyone who suspects price gouging — businesses charging thousands of dollars to remove a single fallen tree or rent out a hotel room, $10-per gallon gas, etc. — can report it to the state attorney general’s office for an investigation.
“My office is here to protect North Carolinians from scams and frauds,” Attorney General Josh Stein wrote on his office’s price gouging web page. “That is true all the time — but especially during severe weather. It is against the law to charge an excessive price during a state of emergency. If you see a business taking advantage of this storm, either before or after it hits, please let my office know so we can hold them accountable.”
Anyone found guilty of price gouging can be forced to refund customers who were scammed, and can also be forced to pay a $5,000 fee for each instance of price gouging they engaged in.
To officially report price gouging or simply learn more about what might qualify, go to https://www.ncdoj.gov/disasters.aspx or call 1-877-5-NO-SCAM.
That website link also has information for people who want to report charity scams or con artists posing as insurance adjusters.
Meanwhile, for people who evacuated to neighboring states like South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee or Georgia and see questionably high prices for goods or services there, those states’ attorneys general are the proper officials to contact about price gouging there.
Not all states ban price gouging, but all the states that border North Carolina do, according to the Thompson Reuters legal website FindLaw.
In North Carolina, price gouging has been illegal since 2003. Then-Gov. Mike Easley signed the ban into law following numerous complaints about high prices during Hurricane Fran in 1996 and Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
News & Observer reports from the time show that after Hurricane Fran, one of the big opportunities for exorbitant prices was tree and debris removal. One man was even arrested for charging an elderly woman $18,000 to remove two fallen trees — the equivalent of nearly $29,000 today — according to a 1996 News & Observer article.
However, while price gouging laws are politically popular, some economists and politicians oppose them as bad policy that actually makes shortages worse during emergencies.
Opponents of price gouging laws argue that if businesses could charge higher prices there would not be shortages, since gas stations and grocery stores would be charging higher prices and thus less likely to run out of supplies. The theory is that people would buy only what they need instead of hoarding, and there would be more bread, gas, ice and other supplies to go around.
“If prices are allowed to rise as the demand increases, this ‘hoarding’ behavior will become increasingly more expensive and therefore discouraged,” wrote economist Roy Cordato of the conservative John Locke Foundation think tank. “In other words, the higher price encourages conservation right at the time when it is most needed. This will leave more gasoline in the tanks at the gas stations where it is available for those who really need it both before the hurricane and during its immediate aftermath, instead of in the tanks of cars that are sitting in people’s garages or driveways.”