Texas officials are cracking down on businesses they say have hiked the prices of food, water, and hotel rooms while the state continues to deal with shortages caused by unprecedented winter weather.
Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, the chief civil attorney for Texas’ largest county, and Linda Hidalgo, the Harris County Judge, said Houston area residents have complained of hotel rooms and bottled water being sold at exorbitant prices.
“The main types of things we’re seeing is hotels setting prices at ridiculous rates,” Menefee told the Associated Press. “We’ve seen allegations of packs of water being sold for two to three times the normal price, or packs of water being divvied up and the individual bottles being sold at excessive prices.”
Menefee and Hidalgo have since set up a system for consumers to report suspected incidents of price gouging. In just 20 hours, the system logged more than 450 complaints, they said.
This is while much of the state continues to face food and water shortages following bitterly cold temperatures and power outages that have lasted days after a winter storm walloped Texas this week.
Increasing prices for essentials during an emergency declaration is against the law in Texas.
Selling or leasing fuel, food, medicine, lodging, building materials, construction tools, or another necessity at an exorbitant or excessive price after the governor has declared a state disaster is illegal under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act.
Hidalgo said violators can face fines of up to $250,000.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton urged residents this week to report incidents of price gouging or other disaster-related scams to the state’s consumer protection hotline.
“No one is exempt from price gouging laws in Texas. Any person selling goods, necessities, or services at an exorbitant price will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Paxton said. “I will not stand for any person or business unlawfully taking advantage of Texans.”
Sticker shock hasn’t been limited to just food and water. Houston Public Media reported about 27,000 Houston-area CenterPoint Energy customers opened their emails this week to a heart attack-inducing surprise: a $202,102.16 bill from their electricity provider.
But the bill was just a technical mistake, the company said.
CenterPoint Energy tweeted to its consumers who might’ve received such an email, “You do not owe this amount.”
The company said, “We are aware of a recent technical issue caused by the power outage in Houston which led to the issuance of incorrect natural gas billing e-mails to some customers. If you have received an e-mail in the amount of $202,102.16, please disregard it.”