The Margin: Hurricane Ian spurs Florida to activate price gouging hotline as Biden, DeSantis declare state of emergency

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Florida is expanding its price gouging hotline as the Sunshine State braces for Hurricane Ian, which could strike as a Category 4 storm.

The strengthening tropical storm was upgraded to a hurricane as it moved closer to western Cuba on Monday morning, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared a state of emergency to all 67 counties in the state. So with Hurricane Ian on a track to hit the west coast of Florida this week, state attorney general Ashley Moody has announced that her office will crack down on price gouging; aka, when retailers and other sellers take advantage of spikes in demand by charging exorbitant prices for necessities, such as after a natural disaster or other state of emergency.

“I am expanding Florida’s Price Gouging Hotline statewide,” Moody said in a statement over the weekend. “Please watch Ian closely, and as you prepare for a potential storm strike, report incidences of price gouging to my office.”

Floridians can report price gouging via Florida’s No Scam app, by visiting MyFloridaLegal.com or calling 1(866) 9NO-SCAM. The hotline organizers ask that anyone making a report remembers to include: their name and contact information; the name and address of the company or individual the suspect of price gouging; a description of why they believe price gouging occurred; and any documentation they may have.

The Florida AG’s office noted that it is illegal “to rent, sell, lease, offer to rent, sell, or lease essential commodities, dwelling units, or self-storage facilities at an unconscionable price” during a state of emergency. Some examples include food, water, ice, gas, lodging and lumber.

See also: USDA’s $2.8 billion for ‘climate-smart’ agricultural projects is a ‘huge step’ in fighting climate change

And an “unconscionable price” was defined as “a gross disparity between the price charged during the state of emergency and the average price during the 30 days before the state of emergency,” as well as a “gross disparity” between the average price of a product or commodity in that trade area in the 30 days before a state of emergency was declared — unless the seller can justify the raised price by showing increases in its costs or market trends.

“Violators of the price gouging statute are subject to civil penalties of $1,000 per violation and up to a total of $25,000 for multiple violations committed in a single 24-hour period,” the Florida state attorney general’s office warned in its news release.

Shoppers may recall how early pandemic panic-buying of hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes and toilet paper led to reports of outrageous price gouging, especially among some online resellers. Or the recent baby formula shortage also led to reports of price gouging online, causing California’s state attorney general to issue a consumer alert.

President Joe Biden has also declared a state of emergency in Florida, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. And the president postponed a scheduled Sept. 27 trip to Florida because of the storm.

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