Price gouging reports continue to mount as more than 2,000 complaints have been lodged by residents living in areas hardest hit by Hurricane Matthew, according to the Florida Attorney General.
Predatory opportunists often strike before, during or after a disaster, because they prey on the anxiety, fear and sheer panic striking a population.
"You could see the stress and anxiety on people's faces when they came into the store," says Judy Yazell, a cashier at the Plantation, Fla. Publix grocery store. "People remember what it was like to go through previous storms like Wilma, and of course Andrew, so no one wants to be go into another storm, especially one like Matthew, without supplies or being ready."
Yazell reports days before the storm was anticipated to impact her area of South Florida, supplies were running low. "Keeping up with water demand was difficult and maintaining a supply of non-perishable items was almost impossible," she says. At home, Yazell's husband spent hours in search of gas for the family's generator and reports coming up empty handed after hitting six stations.
"You will do anything to keep your family safe, so I can see how people will pay whatever it takes for gas or protection," Yazell says.
Before the storm was forecast impact Florida, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi opened the state's price gouging hotline and identified several merchants that were already taking advantage of desperate residents.
Price Gouging Retailers and Merchants Identified
Bondi's office provided a list of several national and local merchants that violated the state's price gouging law, citing specific increases through resident claims on social media.
One merchant reportedly hitting two aspects of price gouging was Wal-Mart, which hiked gas and bottled water prices. One social media user snapped a photo of his local Shell station advertising regular gasoline for $5.99 a gallon and another user identified typically budget-friendly hotels like Hampton Inn promoting rates in Asheville, N.C. ranging from $360 to Hotel Indigo Asheville in the downtown area at $509 a night.
Water was in short supply, so some grocery and convenience stores capitalized on consumer desperation, hiking prices to $11.99 for a six-pack of Fiji bottled water, for instance.
Yazell's employer, Publix, was not found to raise prices during the crisis.
"At Publix, we take very seriously our commitment to our communities and the ability to serve in a greater capacity in times of emergencies and need," said Nicole Maristany Krauss, media and communications manager for the Miami Division of Publix Super Markets Inc. in a statement. "In the communities we serve, it is our responsibility to help prepare prior to and in the aftermath of the storm. We live and work in our communities we serve. We would never knowingly disappoint our customers."
Bondi's office issued warnings to those tempted to increase prices, "Anyone who suspects price gouging in affected areas during this declared state of emergency should contact my office," stated Attorney General Pam Bondi. "Consumers can help protect themselves from price gouging by obtaining multiple estimates for construction jobs, carefully checking all payment terms and other provisions of contracts, and only doing business with reputable contractors and businesses."
Consumers are urged to report price gouging to the Attorney General's Office by calling 1-866-966-7226.
Charitable Giving Can Be Dicey
Dubious practices aren't limited to those in the path of a storm or disaster. Generous donors who want to help areas hit by disaster can fall victim to dishonest practices. Before you give to a charity, know which organizations are going to make the most from your donation so aid is delivered to those in need.
"New charities claiming they are providing aid to disaster areas can crop up during times of distress, however regulators pay especially close attention during disaster situations so unscrupulous organizations have a higher chance of getting caught," explains Daniel Borochoff, president and founder of CharityWatch, a charity watchdog organization.
CharityWatch assembled a comprehensive ratings list of reputable charitable organizations that consumers can trust. The list is based on the portion of the organization's budget going to program services and fundraising efficiency. Topping the list includes Catholic Relief Services, CARE, Direct Relief & Direct Relief Foundation as well as International Medical Corps.
Another charitable resource may be located within your own community, Borochoff adds. "If you live in a community with respected local officials who are tied to the affected area, you may also be able to identify reputable charitable organizations that provide legitimate aid as well."
Like many charity watchdog professionals, Borochoff recommends donors consider contributing monetarily rather than sending products or goods. "The area receiving the contribution is already in chaos so it's easier to apply funds towards whatever the community needs rather than trying to distribute goods, especially if they are unlabeled," he says.