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    Mississippi Consumers Complain of Gas Gouging

    Attorney general blames oil prices.

    GULFPORT, Miss. -- With thousands of evacuees fleeing the coast before Hurricane Dennis makes landfall, many people are wondering if they're being gouged with higher gasoline prices, according to the Associated Press.

    The attorney general's office had received 32 complaints about price gouging by mid-afternoon Friday, said Grant Hedgepeth, director of consumer protection for the state agency.

    "But unless we find somebody going up to three bucks or so, I think it's just from the jump in oil prices," Hedgepeth said. "From what I've been able to tell, prices did go up drastically this week, not just in Mississippi but worldwide. I think hikes of 15 cents to 20 cents are going to be the norm."

    The price of a barrel of crude oil surpassed $61 last Wednesday -- a record high -- and that had begun to trickle down to the pumps by week's end.

    However, steep increases at an individual store out of sync with other retailers could indicate that someone is profiting from a disaster.

    Jerry Wilkerson, the executive director of the Mississippi Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said its members had to raise prices to keep from losing money.

    Their wholesale price had increased by 8 cents on Sunday, 3 cents on Tuesday and 10 cents on Wednesday.

    "That's a 21-cent increase," Wilkerson said. "They know this storm is out there. They know what it is going to look like when they go up 21 cents. If they're going to sit there and lose 10 or 12 cents a gallon, they would be better off to close their doors. They can't afford to lose that kind of money."

    Michael Wright, vice president of public affairs for AAA, said Hurricane Dennis is likely to cause gasoline prices to go higher.

    "The Gulf region produces more gas than it uses," Wright said. "Consequently, that's shipped all over the country. The major refinery region of the U.S. is the Gulf Coast, primarily Louisiana and Texas."

    If refineries sustain damage or temporarily cease operations, supplies decrease and gasoline prices go up. Prices on the commodities market are set in anticipation of what might occur during a hurricane.

    "No question about it, it's going to affect the off-loading of crude," Wright said. "If shipments don't arrive, that will send prices north."

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