State laws generally bar price-gouging during emergencies such as those declared when Sandy struck. Although the laws differ, they typically recognize some leeway for price increases tied to extra demand and tight supplies, and they sometimes have led to civil actions.
For example, Chiesa said in September that a Lukoil station in Sussex County had agreed to pay $20,000 - and an additional $30,000 if it violated the law again in the next three years - to settle gouging allegations that arose after Tropical Storm Irene struck the state in August 2011.
State officials said New Jersey law "defines excessive increases as any more than 10 percent higher than the price at which the merchandise was sold in the usual course of business prior to the state of emergency. If the seller faces additional costs imposed by suppliers or logistical concerns, an excessive increase is any that is 10 percent above the normal markup from costs."
Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly warned last week that the state defined gouging "as a price increase of more than 20 percent above the average prices observed during the week before the emergency declaration."
New York law prohibits retailers, suppliers, and others from taking advantage of consumers by selling goods or services for an "unconscionably excessive price" during an "abnormal disruption of the market," according to Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who said Monday that the state had received hundreds of complaints.
Sal Risalvato, executive director of a merchants group that represents about 1,000 New Jersey gas stations, said he was less concerned about price-gouging than about supply constraints that were forcing sudden but legal price increases.
"Somebody charging $5 or $6 a gallon is price-gouging," Risalvato said. "But if you were charging $3.50 before the storm, you're legally allowed to charge $3.85." Despite the allegations, he said, "I'm going to go out on a limb to say that, when they are investigated, they will find there is no price-gouging."
Risalvato said many stations, especially in North Jersey, continued to face difficulty getting deliveries. "I have well over 100 members that are screaming that they can't get gas," he said.
Some station owners have been asked to pay 30 to 40 cents extra per gallon by suppliers, he said - not because of a lack of gasoline, but because of long waits at wholesale facilities in South Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, where tankers have turned while North Jersey distribution centers are shut.
"I don't consider that gouging - I think there's tremendous strain on the distribution system, and they're just trying to pass along costs," Risalvato said. "Trucks are making one delivery a day when they used to be able to make three or four, because of the wait times at the distribution terminals. In some instances, they're facing four or five hours of wait time."
In recent days, state officials across the region have stressed the risks posed by dishonest or incompetent contractors. Chiesa said they were likely to produce "the bulk of new complaints" in the weeks and months ahead.
"No matter how pressing your need for repairs, it is absolutely important to take a step back and learn all you can about any contractor - especially if he or she comes knocking on your door or posting fliers at local stores," Chiesa said. "An unregistered or incompetent contractor can leave you with escalating costs and continuing unsafe conditions in your home."
Consumer-protection officials recommend never paying cash; spacing out partial payments until work is complete; checking licenses, references, and liability insurance; getting written estimates; and checking with your insurer before authorizing work you expect to be covered.
In New Jersey, call the Division of Consumer Affairs at 1-800-242-5846 to make sure a contractor is registered and find whether the business has drawn consumer complaints. Call 1-800-441-2555 to reach Pennsylvania's Consumer Protection Hotline.
Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or email@example.com.