Price Gouging After Wildfire Disaster
Price Gouging Protections Extended By Governor To April 18, 2018
California Penal Code Section 396 generally prohibits charging a price that exceeds, by more than 10 percent, the price of an item before a state or local declaration of emergency. This law applies to those who sell food, emergency supplies, medical supplies, building materials and gasoline. The law also applies to repair or reconstruction services, emergency cleanup services, transportation, freight and storage services, hotel accommodations and rental housing. The Governor has extended the State of Emergency for Sonoma County through April 2018 so the price gouging limitations will continue to apply during this time.
Violators of the price gouging statute are subject to criminal prosecution that can result in a one-year imprisonment in county jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000. Violators are also subject to civil enforcement actions including civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, injunctive relief and mandatory restitution. The District Attorney and the Attorney General can enforce the statute. Our office will investigate all reports of price-gouging.
There are many factors that go into evaluating whether the price gouging prohibitions have been violated. The fact that a price has increased or is greater than what other similar establishments charge is not the sole determining factor. Many times, there are legitimate reasons such as increased costs that may justify a price increase.
Complaints can be made on the District Attorney’s website at http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/District-Attorney/, or by calling (707) 565-5317. It would be most helpful if victims or witnesses could provide the District Attorney’s Office with emails, pictures, or other documentation showing the before and after prices.
A complete copy of Penal Code Section 396 can be found at:
- Price Gouging FAQs
- City of San Francisco Good Samaritan Program
- Click here for Legal Aid of Sonoma County
FEMA Disaster Legal Services
FEMA, through an agreement with the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association, provides free legal help for survivors. Disaster Legal Services provides assistance to low-income individuals who, prior to or because of the disaster, are unable to secure adequate legal services to meet their disaster-related needs.
Unlicensed or Fraudulent Contractors
As a result of increased demand for constructions services, many unlicensed contractors seek out work. Please check with the Contractor’s State Licensing Board website to make sure that the contractor you hire is licensed, insured and bonded at http://www.cslb.ca.gov/ and that they have the appropriate specialty license if required. Contracting without a license is a crime and enhanced penalties are provided for contracting without a license during a state of emergency. Reports of unlicensed contractors can also be made on the website.
Additionally, some contractors may take on more work that they are able to perform or try to exact a greater deposit than the $1,000 deposit they are authorized by law to require before work commences. Reports of any problems with licensed contractors should also be reported to the State Contractors Board.
We have received reports that fraudulent applications are being filed for FEMA relief. If you believe that you are the victim of disaster relief fraud associated with FEMA, please report the fraud directly to the FEMA Fraud Branch via the following phone number and/or email addresses:
- FEMA Fraud Branch (also known as FEMA Office of the Chief Security Officer)
- (866) 223-0814
The FEMA Fraud Branch will process the complaint and attempt to remediate the fraud. The FEMA Fraud Branch will also refer the matter to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Unfortunately, the FEMA Fraud Branch will not respond individually to victim complaints. To determine if the fraud has been remediated by FEMA, victims should contact their local FEMA Disaster Recovery Center. It is unnecessary to file a separate report with a local or federal law enforcement agency, unless instructed to do so by FEMA. However, please continue to notify local law enforcement agencies and/or the FBI Santa Rosa Resident Agency regarding potential FEMA fraud, so that trends in disaster fraud activity can be monitored locally.
Additionally, if you believe that you are the victim of identity theft, please visit IdentityTheft.gov to report the identity theft and obtain resources for recovering from identity theft.
Fraudulent FEMA Inspections and False FEMA Claims
Sonoma County and Napa have received complaints of persons identifying themselves as “FEMA inspectors” coming to resident’s homes and asking for personal information. Reports have also been received that false FEMA claims have been filed using resident’s personal information such as social security numbers and when the resident attempts to file for aid they are advised an application has already been filed under their name.
FEMA will not send inspectors to your residence unless you have filed an application for assistance. FEMA inspectors will not collect personal identifying information or bank account information at your residence. This information will only be requested when a person fills out the application online or at a Disaster Recovery Center. All FEMA employees and contractors will have federally-issued photo identification badges, which you should request to see.
If an individual shows up at your home to conduct a FEMA inspection and you have not filed an application for assistance, FEMA requests that you immediately contact the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General at (800) 323-8603 or www.oig.dhs.gov. If you attempt to file an application for assistance, but find that someone has already filed an application in your name, FEMA requests that you call the FEMA Office of the Chief Security Office at (866) 223-0814 or report at FEMA-OCSO-Tipline@fema.dhs.gov. Contacting FEMA as soon as possible may prevent payment to the individual responsible for the fraud. You can find more information at https://www.disasterassistance.gov.
If you have been a victim of this scam, you may also be a victim of identity theft. You should take the following steps: report the crime to the police and ask the police to issue a police report of identity theft and advised them you have reported to FEMA; report the fraud to the three major credit bureaus, Equifax at (800) 525-6285, Experian at (888) 397-3742, and TransUnion at (800) 680-7289; carefully review your credit reports for accounts you do not recognize or inquiries you did not authorize; and consider a credit monitoring service or a credit freeze for protection against new accounts being opened in your name. You can find more information on what to do if you suspect you are a victim of identity theft on the Attorney General’s website at https://oag.ca.gov/idtheft/facts/victim-checklist.