Price-gouging complaints hit North Carolina on heels of Hurricane Florence

Last Updated Sep 17, 2018 2:43 PM EDT

North Carolina's top law enforcement official is looking into hundreds of complaints alleging price-gouging in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

Attorney General Josh Stein has received about 500 complaints so far alleging price-gouging for essentials like gas and water, his office said Monday. Most of them were in the eastern part of the state, and investigations of some gas stations have already begun.

About 20 percent of gas stations in the state are without gasoline as of Monday morning, GasBuddy reported, while 10 percent are without power. In South Carolina, 9 percent of stations were without gas. Other stations have extensive lines of cars waiting to fill up, according to reports on social media.

However, Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, said the popular app has not received any reports of gouging. "To date, we have not received a single photo of receipts or signs showing far above average prices," he said.

Preparation for Hurricane Florence drove up gas prices by 5 cents a gallon in South Carolina, 3 cents in North Carolina and 1 cent in Virginia, according to AAA. But they have remained relatively stable, and the statewide prices for South Carolina and Virginia even today put them among the 10 cheapest states for gas. 

"The situation will likely take time to improve but the good news is that fuel supply has not stopped flowing," GasBuddy analysts said in a note. 

Is price-gouging illegal?

North and South Carolina both have strong price-gouging laws that went in effect when national emergencies were declared. (Sept. 7 and Sept. 9, respectively.)

The law will stay in effect for at least 45 days in North Carolina, according to Stein, the state's attorney general.

North Carolina's law defines price gouging as charging "unreasonably excessive" prices for goods used in an emergency. The law empowers Stein's office to stop the high pricing and seek refunds for consumers. Penalties of $5,000 and up to 30 days in jail are also possible.

"If you are seeing price gouging by retailers or by construction companies or by anyone who is out there providing a good or service, let my office know," Stein said Sunday. He encouraged people to report gouging online or by calling 877-566-7226. In South Carolina, price-gouging complaints should go to pricegouging@scag.gov or to 803-737-3953.

Determining what is gouging, and what's not, can be tricky, GasBuddy's DeHaan said. Seeing a product advertised at a high price doesn't mean the retailer is taking advantage, unless the cost is the result of a recent increase. 

"You'd have to understand what that station was charging prior to the storm," he said. "The price, in and of itself, is not gouging criteria."

Just this summer, 48 Texas gas stations settled accusations of price-gouging in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which hit the state last year.