Jeff Nyholm, an evacuee from Larkfield, wasn’t in a position to be choosy Friday about accommodations in the midst of a fiery catastrophe engulfing Sonoma County.
So he paid $342 to book a room — through the Reservations.com website — at the Travelodge in Healdsburg.
“I figured those were Wine Country rates,” he said.
But when the clerk told him at check-in the normal rate was $159, Nyholm said he began to feel he “might have been taken in a bit.”
Two nights later, he got a room at the Best Western in Healdsburg, adjacent to the Travelodge, for $159.
The destructive fires that broke out last week across Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties have displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes, leaving many vulnerable to short-term price hikes in basic goods and services, including overnight shelter.
Those increases are illegal in the wake of an emergency declaration when they are more than 10 percent over the pre-emergency rate, authorities say.
In Nyholm’s case, George Williams, a front desk worker at the Travelodge, said he advised Nyholm the regular room rate was $179. Any amount above that was at the online company’s discretion, he said.
“We’ve been keeping the same rate for all our guests,” Williams said Monday.
A representative for Reservations.com could not be reached Monday and emails to the company’s press office bounced back as undeliverable.
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch has advised people to report suspected price gouging to her office for investigation and potential prosecution. A misdemeanor offense under state law, it is punishable by up to a year in county jail, she said Monday.
But not every price hike amounts to a violation, and people reporting them need to supply evidence of the price before and after the emergency was declared.
“We encourage people if they have evidence of something happening to provide photos or receipts,” she said. Reports may be made by calling her office at 707-565-2311 or preferably, Ravitch said, by email through the website, da.sonoma-county.org.
Mark Azzouni, consumer fraud investigator for the District Attorney’s Office, said he’s received at least 20 separate calls or emails alleging an instance of price gouging. But so far, Ravitch said, investigators “have been unable to find a single complaint that is a case of price gouging.”
For example, Azzouni said, a gas station boosting its price by 10 cents a gallon is “not even close” to the 10 percent standard set by law.
And the price hike has to be witnessed first-hand,” Ravich said.
“People should not get carried away by what the see on social media,” she said.
The Press Democrat is recording cases of price gouging at its website, www.pressdemocrat.com, where people may click on the headline “Were you the victim of price gouging during the fires?”
Randy Freeman of Bennett Valley, on his way home from a shelter at Cook Middle School Sunday, said he stopped at the CVS Pharmacy on Yulupa Avenue and found a stack of 24-packs of bottled water priced at $5.99.
“I can buy it all day for $3.99,” said Freeman, who, like Nyholm, reported his experience to the newspaper.
“It is, in my opinion, fleecing the people.”
An employee at the store, who declined to give her name, said the Arrowhead brand of bottled water was selling for $5.99, the regular price, with stacks of CVS bottled water next to it at $2.99.