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Authorities issue alert on price gouging in fire areas

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.

Freeman said Arrowhead water was selling for $3.99 for 24-packs Monday at Safeway, across the street from CVS.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued a consumer alert reminding residents that price gouging during a state of emergency is illegal.

With fires raging around the state, “it should not be open season on innocent victims,” he said in a press release.

Suspected price gouging may be reported to his office at oag.ca.gov or by calling (800) 952-5225, or by contacting local authorities.

The state law on price gouging applies to food, emergency supplies, medical supplies, building materials and gasoline, as well as services including repair and reconstruction, emergency cleanup, transportation, freight and storage, and to hotel accommodations and rental housing, the release said.

Price gouging during disasters is “commonplace” because they create a surge in demand for some goods and services, said Robert Eyler, a Sonoma State University economist.

“In economics, we call it a primal problem, based on the natural instinct to gain as much as you can,” he said. “Capitalism at its finest.”

An abundance of donated supplies, such as food and water, can act as a check on increased pricing by boosting the supply of things people need for free, Eyler said.

Ravich expressed a similar view.

“Doesn’t everybody want to make a quick buck?” she said.

“Isn’t that why people buy lottery tickets?”