The governors of Texas and Louisiana declared states of emergency as Tropical Storm Harvey reached landfall, triggering each state’s price gouging laws, which expressly prohibit charging prices for goods and services that are higher than the prices ordinarily charged for comparable goods and services at or immediately before the time of a state of emergency.
But these laws did not stop a Houston-area Best Buy from raising the price of a case of bottled water to $43 a pack, directly violating statutes designed to curb price gouging on "items of necessity" such as food, fuel, and water, as the storm––which has claimed the lives of at least 31 people––batters coastal communities.
A photograph circulated by a Houston resident quickly went viral across Instagram and Twitter. It shows the Best Buy in Cypress, Texas, about 30 miles from Houston, selling 24-packs of Dasani water for $42.96, and 12-packs of Smartwater for $29.98.
“This was a big mistake on the part of a few employees at one store on Friday,” a Best Buy spokesman said in a statement to The Hill. “As a company we are focused on helping, not hurting affected people. We’re sorry and it won’t happen again.” The spokesman added that Best Buy "typically sell cases of water" and that employees priced the water "by multiplying the cost of one bottle by the number of bottles in a case."
Many consumers indicated they would not accept Best Buy's explanation, and criticized the company for taking advantage of individuals during a crisis which has only continued to grow in size and scope.
Unfortunately, it's not uncommon to see price gouging even after state governors issue disaster proclamations, and other reports from the disaster zone signal that Best Buy is far from the only business guilty of selling basic necessities at exorbitant prices.
Kayleigh Lovvorn, a spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, said people reported having to pay $3.50 a gallon for gas in Houston, about a $1.30 more than the area's average gas price, and that a Houston convenience store charged $20 a gallon. While she acknowledged that it's unclear whether the increases are the result of price gouging or a side-effect of the shutdown of refinery operations in Harvey's wake, she said the attorney general’s office is investigating nonetheless.
ABC News reports that a RaceWay gas station in Corpus Christi sparked public outrage after a woman said she paid nearly $70 for what she says was two cases of beer. RaceWay attributed the overpricing to a clerical error. Paxton reassured the news station that he believes that there are more good people assisting with disaster relief than there are people actively price gouging.
"I do think people should know that in Texas most people are not price gouging, most businesses are not price gouging, and for that matter we've had a lot more volunteers saving people's lives than we've had people ripping people off," Paxton said. "This is a great state, and we're just trying to make sure that the people that are on the fringes doing some of these things get caught and they pay the fines."
The state attorney general’s office had received 684 consumer complaints as of Wednesday morning; a majority of these complaints involved price-gouging of bottled water and other necessities. AG Paxton said violators could face penalties of $20,000 per incident, and that penalties can reach $250,000 in the cases of victims who are age 65 and older.
Demand for these goods has suddenly surged well beyond the point where the vendors can supply them––and their response to the disaster has served as a moral litmus test. Indeed, some people have suggested that if dealers do not price their goods accordingly, buyers receive a free license to hoard items, or sell the items themselves on the black market at astronomical rates.
Price gouging in Texas... isn't. It's supply and demand. Learn lessons from Katrina! Demand affects pricing, will help ease supply probs
— Austin Petersen (@AP4Liberty) August 27, 2017
But if jacked up prices are meant to ensure that only those who really need essentials can get them, who decides that those who lost everything must have no need of them? Charging $43 for bottles of water is not a mistake. It is a conscious choice, and it's a false equivalency to explain away price gouging as sheer capitalism, and not a predatory business practice. Taking advantage of the vulnerable and the needy is a straightforward offense.
The Texas attorney general’s office is urging people to report possible cases of scamming and price-gouging by calling 800-621-0508 or emailing [email protected].