tampabay.com

Dennis spares area, but have gougers?

Five bay area counties account for more than 20 percent of complaints about high prices.

By JEFF HARRINGTON
Published July 12, 2005


The Tampa Bay area was never directly in the path of Hurricane Dennis, but that didn't stop some of the economic shenanigans that usually accompany a major storm.

Five counties in the bay area accounted for more than 20 percent of the price gouging complaints to a statewide telephone hotline even though the weekend hurricane only sideswiped the region.

According to Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist's office, about 1,540 people had called the fraud hotline as of midday Monday. The tally included 115 complaints from Hillsborough County, 83 from Pinellas, 65 from Pasco, 30 from Hernando and 25 from Citrus.

More than 95 percent of the local calls involved steep gas price increases, with many citing hikes at the pump of 20 to 40 cents per gallon in a 24-hour period. One caller reported an increase from $2.18 per gallon to $2.89.

Florida law defines gouging as raising prices to a "gross disparity" over the average price 30 days before a declared emergency.

Price gouging complaints aren't unusual in the days before and during the threat of a major hurricane, but it's usually in areas in line for a direct hit.

Crist said Monday afternoon that he was at a loss to explain the high number of bay area complaints.

"It's unbelievable," he said in a phone interview from Navarre, where he was touring storm-ravaged neighborhoods. "Maybe since we had some storm damage in Tampa Bay, they saw an opportunity" for price gouging.

It's too soon to know how many of those complaints are legitimate, Crist said, adding that he just issued his first subpoena seeking information from a gas station in the Panhandle.

Anyone wishing to report suspected price gouging is urged to call toll-free 1-866-966-7226.

--Jeff Harrington can be reached at harrington@sptimes.com or 813 226-3407.