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After Irma, what happened to all those complaints about scams?

Bondi settles state’s first case for $25,000 -- after fielding 7,500 complaints <br>
A staff member in the Florida attorney general's Consumer Affairs Division fields a complaint in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in September.
A staff member in the Florida attorney general's Consumer Affairs Division fields a complaint in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in September.
Published Dec. 12, 2017|Updated Dec. 13, 2017

In the weeks after Hurricane Irma forced the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history, thousands of angry consumers swamped Florida 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.

A statewide consumer group wonders why Bondi’s office can’t find more cases of price 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.

Bondi has 10 active price gouging cases, including a Mexican restaurant in Tampa, hotels in Tarpon Springs and Coconut Grove, three South Florida gas stations and two propane distributors.

She said many victims are out of state and price 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 before 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 hot-tub rooms, theme rooms and free Wi-Fi on its website, , 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.

Ness declined an interview request.

James Seager of Hamilton, Ontario, was stranded in Miami when his flight back to Canada was canceled. He took refuge at Miami Princess at 3 a.m. on Sept. 8, and things soon got worse.

Seager told the state his rate for the first night was $95, but the hotel hiked it to $200 for three additional nights.

When he asked the clerk why, Seager said, he got a one-word response: “Hurricane.”

“As a stranger with no U.S.A. cellphone and the storm starting, I paid the doubled price,” Seager said.

Seager told the Times/Herald in an email that Bondi’s response to his complaint restored his faith in “law and order.”

“When I made my complaint online, Florida contacted me promptly,” Seager wrote. “During our phone conversation, they seemed genuinely concerned. … The legal effort sends an important message. During times when the health and safety of others is at serious risk, predatory pricing should be not only be morally repulsive but legally constrained.”

He’ll get a refund of $315.

More than 200 others who stayed at the hotel during the same period will get refunds ranging from $5 to $300.

Bondi praised the hotel for admitting it was wrong and agreeing to settle. Her office said customers who stayed at the hotel who file complaints by Jan. 7 are eligible for refunds.

Bondi, a Tampa Republican, was elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014. She cannot run again next year because of term limits.

Hurricane Irma’s ferocious winds and pounding storm surge forced more than 6.5 million people, or the equivalent of nearly a third of the state’s population, to evacuate as the storm stalked the coastline with Category 4 fury.

On the night of Sept. 6, Bondi invited reporters to her consumer affairs unit, where 50 people 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.

The state said four of the nine open price gouging cases involve gas stations in Hialeah, Cutler Ridge and Marathon, Suburban Propane and AmeriGas Propane.

Four involve hotels: the Mayfair Hotel & Spa in Coconut Grove; Aloft Miami Dadeland; Days Inn in Wildwood; and the Tarpon Inn in Tarpon Springs, where a woman who answered the phone declined to comment.

A ninth case involves a restaurant and produce stand, El Noa Noa in Tampa, where an employee referred questions to a manager, who did not return calls.

Price gouging cases can take a year or longer to resolve if they go through the courts.

One of Bondi’s predecessors, Charlie Crist, reported 8,900 complaints on a price-gouging hotline during a record-setting hurricane season of 2004 and filed 13 lawsuits against various businesses, the Orlando Sentinel reported then.

Crist reached a $609,000 price gouging settlement with a North Carolina construction company that made repairs to beachfront condos following Hurricane Ivan in 2005. Crist’s office said it filed 15 price gouging lawsuits and recovered $1.5 million in restitution.

Crist’s predecessor, Bob Butterworth, had no price gouging law when his office pursued scam artists after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

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.


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