Attorney General Kane warns of winter storm price gouging and scams

Written by witf | Feb 6, 2014 2:11 PM

Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane today cautioned both Pennsylvania consumers and businesses about price gouging and other weather-related scams after a State of Emergency was declared last evening by the governor.

"Pennsylvania consumers are protected from unwarranted, sudden price increases during emergencies," Attorney General Kane said. "My office will accept complaints from consumers and businesses and violators of these protections will be held accountable."

The price-gouging restrictions prohibit anyone involved in the sale or distribution of consumer goods or services from 'unconscionably excessive' increases above average prices during the week prior to the emergency.

The restrictions were triggered by the disaster emergency proclamation signed yesterday and will extend for 30 days after the expiration of the disaster declaration.

Attorney General Kane 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, along with restitution and injunctive relief.

"Taking advantage of consumers in an emergency will not be tolerated and consumers should be vigilant. Contact my office if you believe you have been scammed," Kane said.

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.

Consumers can report potential price-gouging by calling the Attorney General's Consumer Protection helpline, toll-free, at 1-800-441-2555 or by filing a consumer complaint online.

In addition, Attorney General Kane offered tips for consumers to protect themselves during the emergency, including avoiding scams related to home repair and following the advice of public emergency, energy, and utility organizations.

Attorney General Kane warned consumers to watch out for "storm chasers" or scammers that will try to take advantage of them when they are in need. She said that all home improvement contractors who do more than $5,000 worth of business per year in Pennsylvania are required to register with the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection. However, registration is not an endorsement of the contractor's honesty or quality of work.

All home improvement and home repair contractors are required to provide consumers with specific information before proceeding with any project, including:

• The contractor's registration number, which must be included in all contracts, estimates and advertisements;
• A written contract for any project costing more than $500;
• Information about the consumer's three-day right to cancel a home improvement contract;
• Details about the materials and labor included in the project;
• Total sales price; and
• An approximate start-date and end-date for the project.

Additionally, Pennsylvania's Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act limits the amount of any up-front payments that contractors can collect. For projects costing more than $5,000, contractors may not accept advance payment of more than one-third of the total price of the contract. Consumers should also get multiple estimates for any major project and check references for recent work before committing to a project. Consumers should also ensure liability and personal insurance coverage in contracts and confirm that coverage with the insurance carrier.

Consumers can report potential scams by calling the Attorney General's Consumer Protection helpline, toll-free, at 1-800-441-2555 or by filing a consumer complaint online.

Attorney General Kane also advised consumers to follow the Public Utility Commission's tips for residents during power outages, including calling utility companies instead of 9-1-1 if the power goes or remains out (unless there is another emergency) and limiting travel during outages involving downed power lines.

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