Before, during, and after a governor-declared state of emergency in Florida, people with bad intentions sometimes take advantage of the situation and raise the price of goods or services to what state law calls an “unconscionable” degree. That’s a crime.
Definition by Law
Florida Statute 501.160 was enacted by the Florida Legislature following the strike of Hurricane Andrew on South Florida in 1992 to guard against profiteering from consumers before, during, and after a declared State of Emergency. So what exactly is price gouging? The law says the following are covered:
Any goods, services, materials, merchandise, supplies, equipment, resources, or other article of commerce, and includes, without limitation, food, water, ice, chemicals, petroleum products, and lumber necessary for consumption or use as a direct result of the emergency.
This refers to almost anything needed before, during, and after the State of Emergency. It also applies to essential services, say, you hire someone to come to your house to install hurricane shutters during the state of emergency, or get work done on your car as you prepare to evacuate. Hotel rooms, which Hurricane Irma in 2017 Irma showed can be scarce due to evacuations, are also covered. Non-essential commodities such as tobacco products and alcohol are not covered under the anti-gouging law. Nor are air fares because airlines are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Distinguishing an Unconscionable Degree
The applicable terms for price gouging are “gross disparity” in prices pre-emergency and that a price “grossly exceeds” what is was pre-emergency. “Prima facie evidence” under the law is defined as:
The amount charged represents a gross disparity between the price of the commodity or rental or lease of any dwelling unit or self-storage facility that is the subject of the offer or transaction and the average price at which that commodity or dwelling unit or self-storage facility was rented, leased, sold, or offered for rent or sale in the usual course of business during the 30 days immediately prior to a declaration of a state of emergency, unless the increase in the amount charged is attributable to additional costs incurred in connection with the rental or sale of the commodity or rental or lease of any dwelling unit or self-storage facility, or regional, national, or international market trends.
The amount charged grossly exceeds the average price at which the same or similar commodity was readily obtainable in the trade area during the 30 days immediately prior to a declaration of a state of emergency, unless the increase in the amount charged is attributable to additional costs incurred in connection with the rental or sale of the commodity or rental or lease of any dwelling unit or self-storage facility, or regional, national, or international market trends.
According to the Florida Attorney General’s Office, “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. In addition to the civil penalties for price gouging, state law criminalizes the sale of goods and services to the public without possession of an occupational license. Violators of the law can be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor.”
Real Life Example
Before and after Hurricane Irma struck in September 2017, the Florida Attorney General’s Office received more than 14,000 calls about possible price gouging, the Miami Herald reported. After review, the newspaper said, the office winnowed that number to 7,500 that needed further review. How many of those resulted in punishment for offenders wasn’t mentioned but here is an example of how it can work.
A motel near Miami International Airport admitted to hiking its nightly room rates by up to 138 percent in the days leading up to Hurricane Irma’s landfall, the Herald reported. Three people filed complaints about the increase. One of them was a Pensacola woman who paid $203 nightly for three nights with taxes and fees for rooms that usually went for about a third of that, the Herald wrote. Six days after Irma struck, the hotel went back to its usual, lower rates.
Overall, the Herald reported, the motel owners paid $7,500 in fines and restitution totaling $17,259 to more than 200 people based on the room rates charged in the 30 days before the governor declared the state of emergency. There was likely a hit to the motel’s reputation, as well.
There are a few exemptions to the anti-gouging law, which says “a price increase approved by an appropriate government agency shall not be a violation of this section” and that it “shall not apply to sales by growers, producers, or processors of raw or processed food products, except for retail sales of such products to the ultimate consumer within the area of the declared state of emergency.”
File a Complaint
If you feel you've become a victim to price gouging, do the following:
- Call your respective Monroe County State Attorney’s Office:
- Key West
- Middle Keys
- Upper Keys
- Key West
- Report as much information about the transaction as you can.
- Pre-Work or Pre-Purchase Price Estimates
- Include the commodity’s:
- Item Number
- Unit Price
- Per-mile charges for towing
- Per-day charges for things such as storage and security
You can call the Florida Attorney General’s Office gouging hotline at 866-966-7226.
Report Violations Online
You can also report violations online at the My Florida Legal website.
Report Violations by Mail
Mail documents to:
Office of the Attorney General
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1050
Remember to include your name, the name of the company or individual, and a complaint number, if you received one.