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Officials Warn Florida Residents of Scams After Storm - 2004-08-18

Authorities in the U.S. state of Florida say they are concerned about numerous incidents of price gouging in the wake of Hurricane Charley. Elderly victims of the storm are especially vulnerable to fraud, and authorities are taking special measures to protect them.

Imagine paying $10 for a bag of ice that would normally cost $1, or $100 for a $35-a-night hotel room. Or, imagine being asked to pay $10,000 dollars to remove a tree from the roof of your house. Those examples are all too real in southwest Florida as victims of Hurricane Charley are now being victimized a second time, by scam artists.

Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist says he has received nearly 2000 complaints about price gouging since Hurricane Charley cut a swath across Florida last week. Mr. Crist says the violations began almost as soon as the storm struck.

"Well they [scams] pretty much run the gamut," he explained. "A lot of the calls we received early on really affected things like plywood lumber, when people were trying to board up their places before the hurricane hit. After that we started getting complaints about hotels and motels. People fleeing Hurricane Charley and trying to get to safe dwellings to put their families up. "

Mr. Crist says some hotels were charging triple or even quadruple their normal rates to people fleeing the storm. Now, he says fraudulent contractors and insurance brokers have moved into storm-affected areas trying to take advantage of people trying to rebuild their homes and businesses.

Especially vulnerable are the thousands of elderly residents who lived in hard-hit mobile home parks, which suffered the worst damage from the storm. Charlie Crist says the state of Florida is making every effort to make life uncomfortable for scam artists.

"We have taken a two-pronged approach by filing under two statutes. Price gouging obviously, but also unfair trade and deceptive practice," he added. "That brings with it a $10,000 fine, unless the victim is a senior citizen, and then it can be up to $15,000. In one of these cases the victim was an 85-year-old woman, so it can be a $15,000 infraction in that case."

Mr. Crist says the state has already filed several lawsuits against hotels that charged more than their advertised rates, and he says many more cases will be brought before judges soon.

He warns anyone caught in a disaster like Hurricane Charley to never pay anyone in advance for promised work, and to make sure and check the credentials of anyone claiming to be an insurance adjuster or licensed contractor.