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Lawmakers Set To Crack Down On Price Gougers

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RALEIGH, N.C. — State lawmakers are scheduled to begin debate about the issue of price gouging during disasters.

A generator that normally may cost $150 can cost twice that amount following a natural disaster. But legislators are trying to make sure that doesn't happen anymore, and price gougers soon may pay their own price in North Carolina.

The House and Senate are hammering out differences in whether price gouging should be a misdemeanor or a felony. The two sides also are set to debate the size of the fines. The House was expected to vote on Wednesday.

After Hurricane Floyd, Robert McKee took money to repair homes down east. Victims paid for work that was never done. The state went after him for scamming homeowners.

When Hurricane Fran struck three years earlier, an 87-year-old woman paid $18,000 to have two trees removed -- more than 20 times what it should have cost. But with no price-gouging law on the books, the tree cutters got away with it.

"If someone is charging you $6 for a dollar-and-a-half bag of ice," said Nash County Democrat A.B. Swindell, "I would think that would be excessive."

Swindell said he has seen enough price gouging in his area during recent disasters to make him sick. He supports the new legislation.

"It's so that we can get at those folks who are trying to profit off people's disadvantage," he said.

The new law would not only target repair companies, but also stores who raise prices on hot disaster items like wood and chainsaws.

Even hotels that raise their rates could run into trouble.

"This legislation will give us another arrow in the quiver to fight that kind of thing," Attorney General Roy Cooper said.

It will be Cooper's job to investigate and prosecute charges of price gouging. With the hurricane season heating up, lawmakers want to be able to pass the bill before it is too late.

Eighteen states currently have laws against price gouging, with most kicking in during a natural disaster.

The push for price-gouging laws gained speed after Hurricane Andrew. When Hurricane Floyd battered Florida in 1999, many people found themselves paying inflated prices for hotels, food and fuel.

The state of Florida fielded 342 complaints and collected $26,000 in fines, some of which went back to consumers. But most price gougers got away.