Spiking prices during disasters intolerable

District Attorney Summer Stephan

San Diego rarely has to deal with weather so severe and di­sastrous that a state of emer­gency is declared. But when it does happen, as it did in late January and early February when a monster storm caused flooding and other devastating effects, be warned that scam­mers will inevitably prey on homeowners and tenants trying to rebuild what they lost.

The recovery process for people suffering from disas­ters, including their homes and businesses getting flooded, is difficult. The District Attorney’s Office will not tolerate any un­lawful activity by greedy busi­nesses, contractors or scammers who would seek to financially exploit victims of a disaster. For example, price gouging and un­licensed contracting during a state of emergency is not only a crime, it also can further vic­timize someone who may have already suffered a heavy loss.

A state of emergency was de­clared in San Diego after the storm on January 22, in an­ticipation that resources and assistance from the state and federal government may be needed. Natural disasters are already devastating. So, when scammers show up at our doors pretending to care about dam­age to our home or property – ready to spike prices in a time of need, it’s truly the definition of adding insult to injury.

During a declared state of emergency, it is illegal for a business to increase its prices for essential goods or services by more than 10 percent, unless they can show their own costs have been increased.

Here is what the statute ap­plies to:

Food (including for ani­mals)

Goods or services used for emergency cleanup

Medical supplies including isopropyl alcohol and anti­bacterial products

Home heating oil

Building materials




In addition, it is a misde­meanor for a hotel or motel to increase regular rates by more than 10 percent during a declared emergency and for 30 days following the state of emergency.

Consumers should be extremely cautious if ap­proached by aggressive agents, adjusters or contrac­tors after a disaster. Most businesses are honest and have good intentions, but there are always bad actors waiting to take advantage of disaster victims.

Working as an unlicensed contractor during a state of emergency is a felony. Keep these tips in mind when se­lecting a contractor:

Ask for proof of licensing such as a pocket license and a second photo ID.

Always verify that the li­cense number matches the contractor you are dealing with.

Beware of scare tactics, odd calls or unsolicited contacts.

Make sure the contractor carries workers’ compensa­tion and liability insurance.

In the aftermath of natu­ral disasters, debris-clearing scams often surface. Do not provide payment upfront and be sure to ask where the debris is being taken. Scam­mers often ask for money up front and then disappear. Sometimes they dump debris on a neighbor’s property or park, which may cause you to be responsible for the costs and penalties.

The public is also warned to be cautious when deal­ing with persons soliciting for purported “victim relief” charities. Many legitimate organizations seek contribu­tions during or after an emer­gency, but scammers often use phony charitable pleas in times like these. Potential contributors should insist on seeing proper credentials before offering to help. Also, make sure you thoroughly vet anyone posing as an in­surance agent to verify that the person is a legitimate professional.

Violations of the price gouging statute are subject to criminal prosecution that can result in a year in jail and or a fine of up to $10,000. Viola­tions are also subject to civil enforcement actions includ­ing civil penalties of up to $2,500 per violation, injunc­tive relief and victim restitu­tion.

If you would like to file a price gouging complaint, call the District Attorney’s Con­sumer Protection Unit at (619) 531-3507.


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