August 26, 2011
Pennsylvanians urged to be watchful for scams and consumer problems related to Hurricane Irene
HARRISBURG - Attorney General Linda Kelly urged consumers to be watchful for potential price gouging and post-storm scams as much of Pennsylvania and the East Coast prepares for Hurricane Irene.
"Victims of natural disasters are often a magnet for scam artists," Kelly said. "It is essential that everyone in the path of the storm takes necessary precautions to protect themselves and their homes and to report any suspicious activity to authorities."
Kelly said the most common topics for consumer complaints following disasters are price gouging, home repair schemes, government loan or grant schemes and fraudulent disaster-related fund raising efforts.
Kelly said the state price-gouging law was designed to protect consumers and businesses from sudden, unwarranted price increases during emergency situations. The price gouging restrictions apply to anyone involved in the distribution or sale of consumer goods or services. Gouging is defined as a price increase of more than 20% above the average prices observed during the week prior to the emergency.
Only the declaration of a state of emergency can trigger the price gouging restrictions, which extend for 30 days after the expiration of the disaster declaration. Kelly noted that earlier today the governor signed a Proclamation of Emergency in anticipation of the impact Hurricane Irene may have on Pennsylvania, which activated the price gouging restrictions.
Kelly said the price gouging law gives the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection the authority to investigate price gouging complaints and allows for penalties of up to $10,000 per violation.
She noted that the emergency price restrictions not only apply to businesses involved in direct consumer sales, but also to manufacturers, suppliers, wholesalers and distributors of consumer products and services.
"Natural disasters, like hurricanes are events totally outside human control," Kelly said. "We do have the power, however, to control our preparedness and our response to these disasters."
Disaster Relief Kits
Kelly said to beware of individuals trying to sell disaster relief kits. Check what the kit includes; you may not need any of the contents or can assemble the items on your own.
Home Repair Scams
After a natural disaster, some may need immediate repair to their homes, but do not let immediacy cloud your judgment regarding home repair contractors.
All home improvement contractors operating in Pennsylvania are required to provide consumers with their registration number, which must be included in all contracts, estimates and advertisements.
Consumers should always get multiple estimates, get references for recent work and be especially wary of contractors who approach you with unsolicited offers or stories of "just being in the neighborhood."
Kelly encouraged consumers to consider the following "warning signs":
Kelly noted that New Jersey has a similar Home Improvement Contract Law in place. "Many Pennsylvania residents have vacation homes along the Jersey shore," Kelly said. "I encourage all those individuals, whose homes may experience significant damage to research the New Jersey law and exercise the same caution as they would with their primary home in Pennsylvania."
Loan or government grant scams
Kelly said to be suspicious of requests for up-front payments for loan applications or to search for grants. Relief agencies and government assistance programs do not ask for pre-payment by disaster victims.
Contact relief agencies and local governments directly to get a list of available disaster-relief programs (check with the local chapter of the Red Cross, U.S. Small Business Administration, and local emergency management officials for more information).
Fictitious Fundraising Efforts
There are numerous legitimate charities, but in times of disaster, scammers will attempt to take advantage of your goodwill and solicit contributions for a non-existent charity.
Consumers can check a charity's legitimacy by calling the Department of State Charities Bureau at 1-800-732-0999.
Kelly encouraged consumers to report potential price-gouging or other consumer related scams by calling the Attorney General?s Consumer Protection Hotline, at 1-800-441-2555 or by filling an online consumer complaint at www.attorneygeneral.gov.
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