5 On Your Side

Am I being gouged on price of gas?

Posted September 19, 2016 5:48 p.m. EDT
Updated September 20, 2016 5:22 p.m. EDT

— Gas prices spiked over the weekend because a pipeline shutdown created some shortages in fuel across North Carolina, but state officials say it's too early to determine whether any stations are guilty of price gouging.

Gov. Pat McCrory put the state's price gouging law into effect on Friday, and about 1,000 people had filed complaints by Tuesday with the Consumer Protection Division of the state Attorney General's Office.

State law defines price gouging as charging "a price that is unreasonably excessive under the circumstances." There is no set price or percentage increase defined in the law, so it can apply to different products and services in times of crisis.

"Unreasonably excessive" can sometimes be hard to prove. Officials look at a number of factors when investigating complaints, including the average price in the previous 60 days and any additional costs the station or distributor had to pay in getting gas to the pumps.

For example, someone complained about Sheetz charging $9.99 a gallon at a station in King on Monday, but the company said stations post that when they have run out of gas and aren't actually charging that price.

Attorney General Roy Cooper issued subpoenas Monday to a gas station and a wholesaler in Guilford County after the station reportedly was selling gas for $4.50 a gallon. On Tuesday, subpoenas were issued to gas stations in Smithfield, Winston-Salem and Stokesdale, each of which were charging $3.99 or more per gallon, officials said.

"A supply crunch shouldn’t be an excuse to rip off people who need gas," Cooper said in a statement.

People can report price gouging through the Consumer Protection Division website or by calling 1-877-5-NO-SCAM toll-free in North Carolina or 919-716-6000. They can submit copies of receipts or send photos of price signs to support their complaints.

Stations found in violation of the law can face fines of up to $5,000 for each violation, with all fines going to support public schools. The Attorney General's Office also tries to win refunds for consumers whenever possible, such as $71,000 won from 14 gas stations the last time the price gouging law was in effect, which was when Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast eight years ago, shutting down some refineries.