Business owners who took New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s recent talk about post-Hurricane Sandy price gouging as an idle threat may now find themselves in legal trouble in the coming weeks.
Schneiderman’s office last week notified 13 gas station owners — including three in Queens — that he will initiate enforcement proceedings against them for allegedly violating state price gouging laws.
“Our office has zero tolerance for price gouging and we are taking action to send a message that ripping off New Yorkers is against the law,” Schneiderman said.
He said Thursday’s action was but the first as his office investigates more than 600 complaints from consumers against businesses that allegedly placed steep price increases on gasoline, generators, hotel rooms and other “items of necessity” after Sandy caused abrupt disruptions in the marketplace.
The gas stations in Queens include the Mobil station at 40-40 Crescent St. in Long Island City allegedly charging $4.89 per gallon; a Shell station at 70-18 Northern Blvd. in Jackson Heights accused of charging $5.50; and a Delta station at 13-09 14th Ave. in College Point alleged to have hiked its price to $5 per gallon.
A man answering the phone at the Delta station said they had nothing to do with the complaint. A man at the Mobil station hung up. Owners of the Shell station could not be reached for comment.
State law allows businesses to submit evidence that their prices were the result of cost increases over which they had no control.
Asemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck) last week applauded Schneiderman’s action, which could lead to fines. Earlier this year Weprin sponsored a bill, A.6173, that would require gas stations to post signs near each pump with contact information for Schneiderman’s office and investigative unit.
A companion bill, S.3631, was introduced by state Sen. Eric Adams (D-Brooklyn).
“We will not allow victims of this terrible storm to be taken advantage of at the gas pump,” Weprin said Sunday at a press conference with Adams. “We will do whatever we can to stop these unscrupulous individuals from raising their prices and knowingly overcharging customers for gasoline.”
Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), chairman of the Public Safety Committee, has called on the state to make price gouging punishable by up to a year in prison rather than just a fine, which can run up to $25,000.
“Clearly the penalties that exist are insufficient to protect the public in times of crisis,” Vallone said last Friday. “These gas stations in particular apparently see fines as the cost of doing business. Anyone who would try to profit from another person’s pain during an emergency deserves to face jail time.”
The law is crafted to deal with those setting an “unconscionably excessive price” during an “abnormal disruption of the market.”
Those covered by the law include but are not limited to gas stations, supermarkets, hardware stores, bodegas, delis and taxi and livery car services. “Unconscionably excessive” is not specifically defined in the statute, though before and after prices can be considered in an investigation.