Attorney General’s Office fields 451 price gouging complaints

The Robstown Best Western Plus was charging $300 for rooms on August 26, 2017 as Hurricane Harvey pounded the Texas coast. The TX Attorney General's Office confirmed finding 40 total instances of "price gouging" at this hotel. (KXAN Photo)
The Robstown Best Western Plus was charging $300 for rooms on August 26, 2017 as Hurricane Harvey pounded the Texas coast. The TX Attorney General's Office confirmed finding 40 total instances of "price gouging" at this hotel. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – State investigators knew it would likely happen. And, it did.

As of this report, the Texas Attorney General’s Office has received 451 complaints of price gouging since the governor declared 30 Texas counties disaster areas ahead of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall. The governor’s declaration activated the state’s anti-price gouging law, which makes it illegal to inflate prices for fuel, food, medicine or “any other necessity.”

As of Tuesday, the Attorney General’s Office has taken complaints related to the following businesses:

Service Stations – 202
Retail-Grocery & Convenience Stores – 171
Travel-Hotels, Motels and Resorts – 20
Retail-Home Supply and Hardware – 19
Restaurant and Bars – 11
Retail-Stores – 6
Retail-Department and Discount – 4
Other — 17

Investigators from the AG’s Civil Litigation Division are on the ground right now investigating many of those claims, the AG’s office confirms. But floodwaters and storm damage has prevented investigators from reaching some of the businesses.

The AG’s office is delivering Civil Investigative Demand letters to the businesses they can reach in person. Those letters are essentially subpoenas for records. The records could become evidence if the AG’s office decides to prosecute a confirmed price gouging case in civil court.

Multiple cases of price gouging have already been confirmed at one Corpus Christi-area hotel, according to the attorney general. The Best Western Plus – Tropic Inn received a call from the AG’s office late Sunday evening after KXAN delivered the AG’s office a copy of a $321.89 hotel receipt.

The receipt came from a KXAN crew who booked a room at the hotel during the hurricane. An internet search showed the room’s normal rates were between $120 and $149. That rate turned out to be $289 when our crew checked in to the hotel.

After a phone call from the AG’s office, the hotel told agents they’d refund each guest the amounts paid above the average room rates, according to Deputy Attorney General of Civil Litigation, Jim Davis.

Davis’ unit also found 39 other price gouging incidents at this same hotel, Davis confirmed during a Monday morning interview with KXAN. Davis’ unit hand-delivered a CID letter to the hotel Tuesday. The AG’s office is currently investigation whether additional price gouging incidents happened there.

“We have received hundreds of complaints total so far on issues like water, food and lodging like this — we expect there will be more coming in, as well,” Davis said. “We’re working hard to get quick closure and get the message out that: don’t break this law because we will find you and we’ll do our best to stop it.”

The AG’s office was able to act so quickly on the hotel complaint because of the copy of the receipt, AG Ken Paxton said. The fastest way for resolution is for investigators to have the proof of purchase or documented pricing. It’s as easy as using a cell phone to snap a picture.

The Attorney General’s office expects a new rush of complaints to roll in as people are able to focus more on recovery efforts. The new wave of complaints is likely to deal with bogus GoFundMe solicitations, roofing and home repair charges, according to the AG’s Office.

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