Price gougers beware: ‘We’re going to find you’

Ramon Lopez, right, and Arturo Villarreal board up windows of a business in Galveston, Texas as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Harvey is forecast to be a major hurricane when it makes landfall along the middle Texas coastline. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Ramon Lopez, right, and Arturo Villarreal board up windows of a business in Galveston, Texas as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Harvey is forecast to be a major hurricane when it makes landfall along the middle Texas coastline. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – One of the first pieces of video claiming to have discovered potential price gouging in connection to Hurricane Harvey shows a man selling cases of bottled water for $20 a case.

“Hey, I’m going to show you why nobody has any water,” Facebook user Marcus Griffin yelled in the video.” Griffin’s video shows a man standing in the parking lot of a shopping center with dozens of cases of bottled water in the bed of his truck.

“Time of crisis, they buy up all the water,” Griffin yells at the man. “People out here struggling for water… struggling for water and they’re out here marking the price up high as hell,” Griffin yelled.

“Man, this water is like $3, dude. It’s $3. That’s why nobody can’t find water because people out here like you sitting here trying to make profit off crisis,” Griffin continued yelling at the man.

“It’s $0.40 a f—ing bottle,” the unidentified man yells back at Griffin before Griffin walks away and ends the video.

It’s cases like this the Texas Attorney General’s Office is hoping the public tells them about.

Before the first drop of rain from Hurricane Harvey ever fell in Travis County, we were out monitoring gas stations, hardware stores and hotels for evidence of price gouging.

This was the highest gas price we found in Austin as Hurricane Harvey rolled ashore August 27, 2017.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office was out, too.

As of Sunday, the Attorney General’s Office reports fielding 350 price gouging complaints from people in the areas hit by Hurricane Harvey. AG investigators tell KXAN the numbers of complaints will continue to grow each day.

“People are in crisis. They’re experiencing great difficulty, so we’re trying to protect people from opportunists who take advantage of people in difficult times,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told KXAN in an interview Sunday.

“There’s nothing wrong with a free market, but this isn’t a free market. This is an unusual market where you have a storm like that that creates such devastation,” Paxton said.

As Harvey bore down on Texas’ coast, the AG’s Consumer Complaints Division’s received reports of cases of bottled water being sold for $42 to $99 in the last couple of days. Most of those complaints were uploaded to the AG’s online reporting site with the picture of the pricing attached.

That day, agents with the office’s Consumer Protection Division delivered Civil Investigative Demand letters to multiple businesses accused of price gouging.

Officials with the AG’s office tell us there are several businesses in the path of the storm where agents were not able to access because of the storm. Those accused price gougers have received phone calls from the AG’s office and can expect a formal letter as soon as agents are able to reach those locations.

The letters are sent to notify accused price gougers of a complaint filed against them and the allegations. The letters also include demands for business records investigators will use to determine whether the price charged was a result of the seller taking advantage of a disaster declaration.

The price gougers could pay is substantial. State law allows the attorney general to file a civil suit against confirmed price gougers. The penalties could cost gougers up to $20,000 per occurrence and up to $250,000 per occurrence against someone age 65 and older.

“The legislature was serious about this with those kinds of fines, I mean, when people know about them…whatever profit they’re making…they have to weigh the cost,” Paxton said.

The first group of price gouging complaints often includes gas and water pricing, Paxton said. Next come the hotel pricing, which is the phase Paxton said Hurricane Harvey victims could be facing now and over the next several days.

As cleanup efforts get underway, the attorney general said he expects to see more complaints of hotel price gouging and inflated roofing and home repair pricing.

Paxton said many times his investigators find the people committing price gouging are ignorant laws exist making the offense illegal. The letter from the AG’s office clears that right up.

Over the next several weeks, Paxton said his investigators and the complaint call center will be fully staffed with one goal in mind: to prosecute those who are ripping off victims of this Texas disaster.

“Expect we’re going to find you. Once we find you we are going to pursue you, so stop. It’s better to stop than be found out,” Paxton said.

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