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    Price Gouging Investigations Continue Across the Nation

    In wake of hurricanes, accusations of illegal price hikes still cropping up.

    PHILADELPHIA -- The Pennsylvania attorney general's office is subpoenaing records from major oil companies and local gas stations in its probe of alleged price gouging at the pump, according to the Philadelphia Daily News .

    More than 1,500 people -- mostly from the Philadelphia area -- have complained to the state since gas prices jumped out of control in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, according to the report. Now Attorney General Tom Corbett's investigators have subpoenaed detailed price information from 31 companies -- a mix of small gas station operators and big oil companies that own stations--including 13 in the five-county southeastern Pennsylvania region.

    "We're gathering our information to make a determination if, in fact, there were price-gouging activities as a result of the hurricane," Barbara Petito, spokeswoman for Corbett's consumer protection division, told the Philadelphia Daily News .

    If the A.G.'s office thinks consumers were cheated, civil charges could be filed alleging violations of the state consumer protection law, Petito told the Philadelphia Daily News .

    Currently, no charges have been filed and the names of businesses receiving the subpoenas were not released, according to the report.

    According to the Philadelphia Daily News , the A.G.'s office has spot-checked prices at more than 600 gas stations, mostly in the Philadelphia area. Among items checked out include--whether prices on signs at the station match those on the pumps, whether clear and conspicuous prices appear at the pumps and whether the only price quoted turns out to be the cash price, with no indication that there's a higher price for paying on credit.

    Gas prices peaked at an average of $3.36 a gallon in the five-county Philadelphia region, and at $3.22 throughout Pennsylvania, both on Sept. 7, and at $3.06 nationally on Sept. 5 for regular unleaded, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. The average price dipped below $3 in the Philly area on Sept. 23 and hasn't gone back. Local prices yesterday averaged $2.94 -- $1.01 more than a year ago.

    In Seattle, the Associated Press reported that there is no evidence that Washington consumers have been victims of price gouging at the gas pump since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, consumer advocates from the state attorney general's office and the AAA told state legislators at a joint House and Senate committee hearing.

    "We would be at where we are today if Katrina had never happened," Tim Hamilton, executive director of the Automotive United Trades Organization, a group that represents gas stations and convenience stores told the AP .

    Representatives from the petroleum industry said Monday it all boils down to a simple rule of economics: Prices rise when demand exceeds supply.

    "That's been a growing problem for decades," Joe Sparano, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, a trade group representing oil companies in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington told the AP .

    In Tallahassee, Fla., Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist filed the state’s second lawsuit over price gouging from Hurricane Katrina, accusing a Tallahassee gas station of raising its gasoline prices 72 cents per gallon during the state of emergency, according to Consumeraffairs.com .

    Crist’s complaint alleges that Island Food Stores Ltd., the Jacksonville-based fuel retailer that owns the Tallahassee station, improperly raised its prices even though the increases were not forced by market conditions at the time, Consumeraffairs.com reported.

    Shortly following Katrina’s devastation, the Attorney General’s Office received more than 1800 complaints about the skyrocketing prices of fuel. These complaints prompted Attorney General Crist to launch a statewide investigation, sending teams of investigators and law enforcement personnel to locations throughout Florida to determine whether the rapid rise in gas prices met the legal definition of gouging, according to Consumeraffairs.com .

    While responding to complaints in Tallahassee, investigators noticed the Island store’s exceptionally high prices and discovered that the station allegedly had hiked prices more than 70 cents per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline over a three-day period, Consumeraffairs.com reported.

    "Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters our country has ever faced. People fled for their lives, many of them seeking refuge in Florida," Crist told Consumeraffairs.com .

    "In addition, Florida served as a staging area for relief efforts going out toward the afflicted area. While I am proud of our state for providing a haven to those in need and sending help where required, it infuriates me that price gougers would target victims under such desperate circumstances. We will not let this stand," Christ said in a Consumeraffairs.com report.

    Between Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, the price of regular unleaded gas sold at the Island station increased a total of 62 cents per gallon, even though the station had received no delivery of regular unleaded gas and encountered no increase in total costs. Midgrade gasoline increased 72 cents per gallon between Aug. 31 and Sept. 2, with no delivery or increase in cost to the station, Consumeraffairs.com reported.

    According to Consumeraffairs.com , the station’s profit margins tripled for regular unleaded gas from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, and more than doubled for premium gas and tripled for midgrade gas from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2.

    Island is charged with violating Florida's price gouging statute, which carries a maximum fine of $1,000 for each occurrence up to a total of $25,000 for multiple violations committed in a single 24-hour period, the report stated. In addition, the business is charged with violating Florida's Unfair and Deceptive Trade, according to Consumeraffairs.com .

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