Smoke from the Woolsey Fire as seen from Santa Monica.

By Andrea Cavanaugh

Rebecca is a California resident who recently faced a familiar nightmare – she packed up her children, pets, and a few treasured possessions to flee a fast-moving wildfire. She had no family or close friends in the area, but Rebecca checked a hotel website and found an affordable room about an hour’s drive away, where she thought she and her family would be safe.

However, when Rebecca arrived at the hotel, the price of the room had mysteriously doubled. She confronted the manager, who denied that the sudden price spike was related to an influx of refugees from the fire.

The recent California wildfires have burned thousands of homes and prompted the mandatory evacuation of more than 200,00 people in Southern California alone. Although many of those displaced people went to evacuation centers or stayed with friends or family, others checked into hotels or vacation rentals.

With such increased demand for temporary housing and other goods, it’s inevitable that some unscrupulous businesses attempt to profit from the crisis. However, increasing the cost of many essential goods and services more than 10 percent during an official state of emergency is known as “price gouging,” and it’s against the law in California.

The ban on price gouging stays in effect for 30 days after the emergency is declared, and can be extended for up to 180 days. It applies to individuals as well as businesses, and includes housing; food and water; fuel; transportation; diapers; toiletries; pet food; emergency, medical, and building supplies; and repair services.

The law applies to short- and long-term rental housing as well as hotels and motels.

The ban on price gouging is not limited to the city or county where the disaster occurs – it applies to any location where there may be increased demand for goods and services because of the emergency.

If the business can prove that the price spike was directly related to an increase in their own costs, they may get away with the increase.

Price gouging in California is a crime – a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $10,000 fine. It can also be enforced civilly, with penalties of up to $5,000 per violation and mandatory restitution. These civil actions can be brought by consumers themselves.

If you suspect that anyone is taking unfair advantage of you during or after an emergency, be sure to save screen grabs, emails, photos, fliers, and any other evidence that the merchant has suddenly raised their prices. This evidence of both the regular (previous) and inflated prices is essential when it comes to enforcing California’s price-gouging law.

If you think you have been a victim of price gouging in Santa Monica related to the recent wildfires, contact the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division at 310-458-8336 or smconsumer.org. Elsewhere in Los Angeles County, contact the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs at 800-593-8222 or dcba.lacounty.gov/. Outside of Los Angeles County, contact the California Attorney General’s Office at (800) 952-5225 or oag.ca.gov.

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