Sandy Price Gouging Probed: $7 Loaf of Bread, $10 Box of Matches

Tuesday, Nov 6, 2012  |  Updated 3:41 AM EDT
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More than 400 possible cases of price gouging of gasoline and other essentials, including a $10 box of matches and $7 loaf of bread, have been reported in New York before and after Sandy.

Reports are being investigated in New York City, the Hudson Valley and on Long Island by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Schneiderman said Monday that he's investigating an increasing number of reports of spikes in prices for essential goods including gasoline, food, bottled water, generators, batteries and flashlights. The probe can include sharp, unwarranted increases in the cost of prices by retailers including supermarkets, hardware stores, bodegas, delis, hotels and taxis, he said.

In one report, the cost of a bag of potatoes jumped to $7, up from $3 before the storm hit. The cost of the box of matches appears more than three times the usual cost, and the loaf of bread is more than double the usual cost.

New Yorkers can report price gouging by telephone at 800-771-7755 or through his office website.

"We are actively investigating hundreds of complaints we've received from consumers of businesses preying on victims of Hurricane Sandy," Schneiderman said. "Our office has zero tolerance for price gouging."

No arrests were reported as of Monday. Schneiderman wouldn't discuss details of the reports or the investigation.

Vendors may defend higher prices if they can show an increased cost of obtaining goods from wholesalers or in delivering services, making prosecutions difficult.

State business law prohibits an "unconscionably excessive price" during an "abnormal disruption of the market" that unfairly takes advantage of consumers.

Schneiderman offers the following tips for consumers to ward off gouging in repairs from Sandy:

— Ask for references and check for licenses.

— Get estimates in writing and agree to added costs only in writing.

— Homeowners have a three-day period to cancel a contract, unless the repair is an emergency.

— Verify a contractor's address.

— Never pay the full price up front. Withhold final payment until the project is done satisfactorily.

— Be sure the contractor has valid insurance so you aren't liable for any injuries on the job.

— Secure building permits before the job starts.

Last summer, Schneiderman sued some gas stations for price gouging following Tropical Storm Irene. The reports of price gouging were relative low during that storm, which ravaged parts of upstate New York. Schneiderman had sent warning letters to major vendors before Irene and before Sandy.

In August, a Yonkers gas station increased its price from $3.89 a gallon before Irene hit to $4.79 two days later, drawing from the same delivery of gas received before the storm hit. The station lowered the price again, to $3.83, when Irene left. The company settled the suit without admitting guilt for $7,500, Schneiderman said.

A Farmingdale gas station on Long Island raised its price 84 cents per gallon when Irene hit. That gas station settled the lawsuit against it for $3,000.

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