In the weeks after Hurricane Irma forced the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history, thousands of angry consumers swamped Attorney General Pam Bondi with complaints of price gouging by hotels, gas stations, retailers and restaurants.
Total complaints: 7,500. Total settlements so far: One. Total amount: $25,000.
A small hotel near Miami International Airport admitted hiking room rates by as much as 138 percent in those frantic days over Labor Day weekend in early September just before Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys.
The state said four of the nine open price-gouging cases involve gas stations in Marathon, Hialeah and Cutler Ridge.
A statewide consumer group wonders why Bondi’s office can’t find more cases of gouging.
“We were bombarded with Bondi’s ads before, during, and after the storms,” said Bill Newton of the Florida Consumer Action Network in St. Petersburg. “We could not help question whether the ads were to mention her name or actually go after price gougers. It does seem like there should be more than one case.”
On Tuesday, Bondi had a simple explanation. “We’ve just gotten started,” Bondi said.
She said many victims are out of state and gouging incidents must be compared to prices up to a month before the emergency. “These cases are time-intensive,” Bondi said.
In the Miami hotel case, three people who scrambled to find shelter lodged complaints with Bondi’s consumer affairs division, which recently reached agreement with the hotel.
The Miami Princess Hotel agreed to pay restitution of $17,259, plus $7,500 in civil penalties for a total of nearly $25,000. The restitution amount is based on hotel records of rates charged during the 30 days prior to Sept. 4, when Gov. Rick Scott declared an emergency.
In an out-of-court settlement known as an assurance of voluntary compliance, the hotel admitted overcharging customers during the emergency, in a violation of the state Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
The settlement notes that the hotel resumed charging its normal rates on Sept. 16, long after Irma was gone.
The hotel, which advertises jacuzzi rooms, theme rooms and free Wi-Fi on its website, miamiprincess.com, is owned by Alberto Valdes, who did not respond to several messages left at the hotel.
One complainant, Charlene Ness of Pensacola, who was in Miami to help with debris cleanup, said she paid $203 a night for three nights, with taxes and fees, for rooms that usually cost about $70 a night.
“I definitely think they ripped me off,” Ness wrote in her complaint. The state will send Ness a refund of $325.20.
More than 200 others who stayed at the hotel during the same period will get refunds ranging from $5 to $300.
Hurricane Irma forced more than 6.5 million people, or the equivalent of nearly a third of the state’s population, to evacuate.
On the night of Sept. 6, Bondi invited reporters to her consumer affairs unit, where 50 of her workers were working 15 hours a day and on weekends, fielding complaints of scams by Florida businesses. She went on TV to ask people to file complaints online because the phone lines were jammed.
“If there are bad businesses out there, we know there are some, and we’re going to get to them to help you,” Bondi said on Sept. 6. “I want you to know that we take these complaints very seriously.”
Bondi’s office said it received more than 14,000 calls and complaints during the state of emergency, including allegations about products not covered under Florida’s price gouging law, such as airfares, and correspondence lacking basic information, such as a business name or a product’s price.
The review resulted in 7,500 complaints that warranted closer scrutiny, Bondi’s office said.
Price gouging cases can take a year or longer to resolve if they go through the courts.
The Legislature passed the state’s price-gouging law in 1992, making a “gross disparity” of the price of essential items before and after an emergency a violation of the law, punishable by a maximum $25,000 fine.
Tampa Bay Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.