TALLAHASSEE – LAWFUEL – Press Release Service – Attorney Gen…

TALLAHASSEE – LAWFUEL – Press Release Service – Attorney General Charlie Crist today urged Floridians and visitors to take all necessary safety precautions as the first tropical storm of the 2006 season approaches the state. Crist also cautioned consumers to be alert for unscrupulous business operators who try to take advantage of them. The Attorney General’s action follows Governor Jeb Bush’s official declaration of a state of emergency for all of Florida due to Tropical Storm Alberto.

“Safety should be our top priority as this storm approaches,” said Crist.

“Unfortunately, Floridians are becoming all too familiar with the threat of storms and we hope our citizens have taken the necessary steps to protect themselves and their loved ones. We are also standing ready to make sure price gougers don’t victimize our citizens and guests struggling in the face of the storms.”

Those who suspect price gouging before or after the storm should call the Attorney General’s hotline at 1-866-9-NO-SCAM (1-866-966-7226), and investigators will look into the complaint. Florida law prohibits extreme increases in the price of such commodities as food, water, hotels, ice, gasoline, lumber and equipment needed as a direct result of an officially declared emergency.

Under Florida law, a commodity’s price is unconscionable if the increase in the price represents a “gross disparity” from the average price of that commodity during the 30 days immediately prior to the declared emergency. 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.

In addition to the civil penalties for price gouging, a law enacted last year criminalizes the sale of goods and services to the public without possessing an occupational license. Violators of the law can be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor.

Crist also cautioned consumers to be wary of business scams that might arise in the wake of Alberto, including building repair and tree removal companies that come into storm-affected areas. The Attorney General said residents should deal whenever possible with established local companies when they contract for repairs or arrange financing to pay for any repairs that might not be covered by insurance.

Consumers should be wary of any unsolicited “contractor” who knocks on the door with an offer to fix a damaged roof or windows. Before signing any contracts, Floridians should check the contractor’s license, payment terms and other provisions, Crist said.

During the past two record-setting hurricane seasons, the Attorney General’s Office conducted thousands of preliminary investigations into price gouging complaints, initiated 83 formal investigations and filed 17 price gouging lawsuits against hotels, generator businesses, tree removal companies and other businesses. To date, the Attorney General’s Office has recovered more than $1.8 million in restitution or reimbursements for Florida consumers from price gouging settlements and other resolutions.

Other investigations and settlement negotiations are ongoing.

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