In the wake of the massive flooding across the state, Georgians are dealing with structural damage to homes and businesses and significant property damage to cars, furniture and personal belongings. In addition, there is a large amount of debris cleanup that will have to be undertaken as individuals work to put their lives back together.
By now, we all have heard countless stories of personal sacrifice and neighborly goodwill, stories that have at their heart people reaching out to those in need. At the same time, times of disaster also bring out the worst in a small segment of the population, spawning scams aimed at preying at those who are in dire straights already or schemes designed to gouge as much money as they can from those least able to negotiate in this rebuilding process.
While there are some consumer protection and criminal statutes designed to protect Georgians from the scams that will be attempted in the coming weeks, the best option is to try to avoid becoming a victim. First, follow the adage that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. If you are contracting for repair work, ask questions of and seek references from anyone seeking to do the work for you. Get competing estimates, especially if it is a large or lengthy project. Get everything in writing, including estimates on the cost of the work, as well as any warranties or promises made by either the contractor or the manufacturer of the goods that will be used in the construction. Make certain that start and end dates are specified. If you feel that you need to think about it, take as much time as you need to feel comfortable before signing anything. If you don’t understand anything in a contract that someone asks you to sign, or it seems to conflict with what you were told, don’t sign.
Georgia law also offers protections against price-gouging in areas where a state of emergency has been declared. The Governor declared a state of emergency in a seventeen county area (Carroll, Catoosa, Chattooga, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Crawford, DeKalb, Douglas, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Newton, Paulding, Rockdale, Stephens and Walker counties) on September 21, 2009, and it is now illegal in that seventeen county area to price-gouge on “goods or services necessary to preserve, protect or sustain the life, health, or safety of persons or their property.”
Stores and service providers are basically restricted to charging the same price as was in effect prior to the state of emergency being declared. Jacking up rates in an effort to take advantage of the situation will subject the business or individual to massive penalties, as a local tree service found out after my office successfully sued for restitution and statutory penalties after they raised their rate by thousands of dollars for tree removal following a tornado strike or as several gas stations discovered after they were fined thousands of dollars following their gouging at the pumps in the wake of Hurricane Katrina striking the Gulf Coast refineries.
As we reach out to assist our fellow Georgians in the wake of this disaster, I urge you to take advantage of the resources that are listed below if you believe someone is attempting to take advantage of you or your neighbors.
Thurbert E. Baker
If you feel that you have been the victim of a scam or are the victim of price-gouging, consumer fraud and price-gouging investigations are handled by the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs. They can be reached by telephone at (404) 651-8600 within the metro Atlanta area or at (800) 869-1123, a toll-free call outside the metro Atlanta area. In addition, additional resources and information are available at the Consumer Affairs website here.
If you feel that you have been the victim of a crime, contact your local District Attorney. If you are not certain who your District Attorney is or are not sure of how to contact their office, you can find your District Attorney and their contact information based on your home county here.
If you experienced a loss due to the flooding and are in a county for which a disaster has been declared, you may be eligible to receive assistance for temporary housing, home repair or other disaster related expenses. You may inquire at the federal Disaster Assistance website here.