WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As some waters recede following Hurricane Harvey’s devastating winds and rain, reports of scam artists taking advantage of victims are surging.
As of Friday afternoon, Texas authorities had received 1,992 complaints about price gouging and fraud, with 636 of the complaints about gas stations overcharging customers, said Jennifer Speller, a spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
A Best Western hotel is accused of gouging an estimated 40 customers, according to Texas television station KXAN, which reported that rooms that normally cost $120 to $149 a night were suddenly priced at $289. The customers have been offered refunds, KXAN reported.
Sharp price hikes on necessities like shelter, food and gasoline are illegal if a disaster has been declared, said Speller.
The storm’s 50-plus inches of rain displaced more than 1 million people and shut down about a quarter of U.S. refining capacity.
After Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005, a government fraud task force prosecuted 1,439 people for charity scams, defrauding the government and other charges, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported in 2011.
With that experience in memory, the government on Thursday announced that it had created a task force to fight fraud and scams. The group includes the Texas attorney general, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and others.
“We’re trying to get ahead of this game. We also hope to have a deterrent impact,” said Shamoil Shipchandler, director of the SEC’s Fort Worth office.
Outside of Texas, the government has received complaints about suspicious sales agents who offer to help people invest in rebuilding Texas while also making a profit, according to Shipchandler.
The Federal Trade Commission received a handful of complaints about fraud and more than 100 complaints about violation of do-not-call requirements, FTC spokesman Frank Dorman said in an email. The calls were to solicit donations, survey storm damage and sell flood insurance, among others.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, hoping to get ahead of charity fraud, announced on Friday that the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation would work with the OneStar Foundation to create a relief fund for Harvey’s victims.
With people just getting back into their homes, the next round of fraud is likely to be contractors who collect payment for promised work and then disappear.
“Call back in a week or so when we are expecting the contractor scams,” said Speller.
Reporting by Diane Bartz