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) -- The U.S. government said Thursday it's setting up a special task force to investigate the energy markets for fraud.

In a


posted on the Justice Department's Web site, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the formation of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force Working Group and said a branch of the group -- the Oil and Gas Price Fraud Working Group -- would "monitor oil and gas markets for potential violations of criminal or civil laws to safeguard against unlawful consumer harm."

The task force will be a collaborative effort across a number of government agencies in addition to the Justice Department. The other participants include the National Association of Attorneys General, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as the Departments of Agriculture and Energy, according to the statement.

The move is a clear sign that federal authorities suspect a degree of market manipulation could be afoot, contributing to the rapid ascent of gas prices in the past few months. According to the latest data from the

U.S. Energy Information Administration

, the price per regular gallon averaged $3.844 for the week ended April 18, up 5% from $3.684 per gallon for the week ended April 4. Gas prices were below $3 per gallon on a national basis at the start of 2011.

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"Rapidly rising gasoline prices are pinching the pockets of consumers across the country," said Holder in the statement. "We will be vigilant in monitoring the oil and gas markets for any wrongdoing so that consumers can be confident they are not paying higher prices as a result of illegal activity. If illegal conduct is responsible for increasing gas prices, state and federal authorities should take swift action."

The creation of the task force follows a request from President Barack Obama in March for the Justice Department to look into potential manipulation.


Written by Michael Baron in New York.

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