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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 August, 2004, 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK
Florida probes storm price fixing
A little boy sits in the wreckage of a trailer park in Florida
The hurricane caused huge devastation
Florida's attorney general is looking into more than 1,000 complaints of price-gouging after last week's hurricane that left thousands homeless.

Attorney General Charlie Crist said on Tuesday he filed his first round of civil complaints against two hotels for charging "unconscionable rates".

Hurricane Charley's death toll rose to 20 after an 86-year-old man fell and died after being evacuated to a motel.

More than 2,000 people are in temporary shelter and 639,000 are without power.

'Egregious behaviour'

The Florida attorney general said he had filed civil complaints over price-gouging against hotels in the West Palm Beach and Lakeland.

In a statement, Charlie Crist said three consumers had complained of being forced to pay more than $100 (54) for a room in the West Palm Beach hotel advertised at under $50 (27) a night.

And an 85-year-old woman with a reservation was forced to pay $61.27 (33) for a room in the Lakeland hotel advertised at $44.79 (24), including taxes and fees.

If found guilty, the hotels' owners could face fines of thousands of dollars.

We're telling people to be wary of handing over any money at all
Douglas Sprotte
Prosecutor
"Hurricane Charley is the worst natural disaster to befall our state in a dozen years, and it is unthinkable that anyone would try to take advantage of neighbours at a time like this," said Mr Crist.

"We are taking a two-pronged approach to fight this egregious behaviour. Families putting their lives back together should not have to worry about price gouging."

He said his office was already looking into more than 1,200 complaints from consumers about price gouging and deceptive and unfair trade practices.

Bogus officials

As people returned to their homes, four days after the storms hit, the authorities urged people to be vigilant against scam artists.

The Miami Herald quoted one prosecutor as saying bogus insurance adjusters appeared to have access to property-damage reports filed by homeowners and were demanding payouts for estimates.

"We're telling people to be wary of handing over any money at all," said Douglas Sprotte, who is overseeing the hurricane task force in Charlotte and Lee counties amongst others.

Estimates for the cost of the hurricane to insurers range from $7bn to $11bn - though this does not account for the losses of those who are uninsured.

Some $2m had been issued to victims in Punta Gorda, one of the hardest-hit areas, and more is on the way, said Mike Brown of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

More than 23,000 victims of the hurricane have asked for help.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who toured the damage with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, announced more than $11m in help.




SEE ALSO:
Florida begins hurricane clean-up
16 Aug 04  |  Americas
Bush visits hurricane-hit Florida
16 Aug 04  |  Americas
Hurricanes boost Nature's chances
22 Apr 04  |  Science/Nature
'Two die' as storm strikes Canada
29 Sep 03  |  Americas
Three dead in Mexico hurricane
23 Sep 03  |  Americas


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