Florida fights back on price gouging in Tampa Bay following Hurricane Irma

Posted at 10:00 PM, Oct 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-14 12:44:51-04

When Florida's governor declared a state of emergency for Hurricane Irma, some businesses raised rates and began price gouging vulnerable customers.

"They're trying to scam everyone," said Attorney General Pam Bondi during a news conference.
It became a perfect storm of greed brewing with Irma in Tampa Bay.

Price gouging complaints to the attorney general rolled in by the thousands.
Tanishan Scarborough tried getting water until a clerk told her it was $38.

"It's morally wrong and unethical.  I felt victimized. I don't make as much as most people. It's rough to know that I'm being charged $38 for a 24-pack case of water and once Hurricane Irma goes by, it's now $2.24," she told us.

It's been a common complaint some store owners refuse to talk about.

Water going for $25.30 a case.

One complaint in Bradenton shows one customer charged $50 a case.

At Fowler Food Mart in Tampa, one woman told us she paid $15.99 for a case of water. Pictures she took on her cell phone show a case of Nestle water with $15.99 written in marker. We also saw on her receipt she used her EBT card to pay for it.

We bought that same case brand for $7.99, weeks after the storm.

One man outside the store told us "It's sky high!  We couldn't buy it, so we have to boil our water and drink it."

When investigator Jarrod Holbrook walked in asking for answers the employee stated, "I don't know nothing about that one."

Scarborough said, "I hope other people with me will take the same stand and say ‘No, I am not paying these prices, especially in state of emergency when this is something that we need.’"

The I-Team found, it's wasn’t just water or gas.

Businesses providing services raised rates taking advantage of people in a vulnerable state.  
The I-Team obtained post-Irma price gouging complaints filed by Tampa Bay area consumers with the Attorney General's office. Many involve services crucial to recovery efforts from tree trimming and water removal to electrical work.

Irma sent a tree crashing on to two of the family cars. The bill shows Mid-Florida Tree Services charged Bently, who did not want his last name used, $9,875 to remove the tree plus two additional branches that landed on his roof and back yard.

We contacted three tree trimmers with A ratings through the Better Business Bureau.  We emailed them half a dozen pictures of the downed tree and branches at Bently's home. The estimates ranged from $1500 to $3500 for the same job.

The owner of Mid-Florida Tree Service defended the $9875 price tag stating $2200 of the bill involved crane work. Now the company is going after Bently for stopping payment on the check.

Leslie Mortar called the Attorney General when another the tree trimmer quoted her a $300 up-charge to remove a large fallen branch right away. We called the tree trimmer who explained extra labor costs when customers say the need is urgent. They explained the extra sub-contracting alone is a substantial cost and was necessary to be able to get to more people quickly.

13,000 Floridians filed price gouging complaints related to IRMA. A portion of them will be tossed out due to lack of proof or the fact the accused don't meet the criteria to be fined for their actions.

There are also federal investigators beefing up to combat disaster fraud.

The I-Team reveals a rare peak inside the National Center for Disaster Fraud in Louisiana.

The U.S. Department of Justice set it up after Hurricane Katrina.

Corey Amundson a federal prosecutor and director at the facility told us. "It's 24/7, seven days a week.  At the center, we've got 30 different federal agencies that we work with all the U.S. Attorneys’ offices."

Their team netted more than 1,400 prosecutions associated with Hurricane Katrina alone. With Harvey, Irma, and Maria all back-to-back, they're getting a huge spike in complaints and are getting more aggressive on fraud.

"We're gonna come after them and we're gonna come after them hard."

Students at LSU are trained to take calls in several languages.

"It doesn't matter if you speak English, Spanish or some other language, we will get your complaint. We will hear it and we will get it to the right person."  

You can file a complaint here with the Florida Attorney General's Price Gouging Hotline or here, with the Federal National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline by DOJ.