Okla. AG: Investigators in Moore to help residents avoid being scammed, gouged in wake of tornado

By Jessica M. Karmasek | May 23, 2013

OKLAHOMA CITY (Legal Newsline) -- Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said he already has investigators in the field to help residents avoid any possible scams in the wake of a massive tornado that hit the state earlier in the week.

On Monday, parts of Moore, Okla., and neighboring Newcastle and southern Oklahoma City were hit by a tornado, later classified as an EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. The scale rates the strength of tornadoes in the United States and Canada based on the damage they cause.

The tornado plowed through neighborhoods and two elementary schools, killing 24 people, including 10 children.

"We have more than 30 investigators in the field to help Oklahomans avoid scams, fraud and price gouging as communities work to recover and rebuild," Pruitt said Tuesday.

The attorney general said the investigators are checking out reports of price-gouging involving hotels, rental car companies, gas stations, grocery stores, storage facilities and even bottled water.

Such price-gouging is illegal in Oklahoma.

The Emergency Price Stabilization Act was enacted after a series of storms in May 1999 caused significant damage across a large of the state.

The law prohibits an increase of more than 10 percent in the price of most goods and services when a state of emergency has been declared. It is effective for the duration of a declaration of emergency and for 30 days thereafter.

Additionally, the act is in effect for another 180 days for prices related to repairs, remodeling and construction.

Over the next few weeks, the attorney general said criminals will shift focus to scams involving clean-up, removal, home repair and tree-trimming.

"Home and business owners will want to quickly repair their property, but we urge them to be cautious and patient and to use reputable contractors," Pruitt said. "We ask that residents pay particular attention to criminals known as 'travelers' who go from one community to the next to take advantage of vulnerable Oklahomans."

The attorney general cautioned Oklahomans to be wary of repair services and contractors who solicit for work door-to-door; offer discounts for finding other customers; "just happen to have" materials left over from a previous job; accept only cash payments; pressure you for an immediate decision; and ask you to pay for the entire job up-front.

Pruitt suggested asking for referrals from trusted friends or family; doing business with local companies; requesting to see proof of certification and insurance; checking out the repair service with his Public Protection Unit and the Better Business Bureau; asking for customer references; getting written estimates from several companies; not doing business without a written contract; getting all guarantees, warranties and promises in writing; and agreeing on start and completion dates, and have them in the contract.

The attorney general also warned Oklahomans -- and donors from across the country -- to beware of fraudulent charities.

"For those folks around the country who want to donate funds to help families in Oklahoma, please be alert and only donate to reputable relief charities such as the Salvation Army or the Red Cross," he said. "The first scam we typically see after devastation like this is charity fraud."

Pruitt also has set up a hotline for residents with questions about charity fraud or price-gouging to call. It is: 405-521-2029.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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