Texas power outages and winter storms in the midst of a pandemic

State and national emergencies this year show the necessity of anti-price gouging efforts.

A severe winter storm in Texas this week left millions temporarily without electricity to heat their homes, cook their food and more. Those dealing with power outages may face any number of roadblocks to housing, clean water, fuel and other essentials to keep themselves safe. These difficulties are compounded by the hard truth that we are still struggling through a pandemic. Texans in need of assistance may prefer to avoid warming shelters or even the homes of family and friends for fear of contracting or spreading the virus. 

Across the country, 31 people have already died from cold temperatures, icy roads or deadly incidents resulting from attempts to get warm. Now, reports from Texas say that prices this week for hotel rooms, bottled water and other products skyrocketed following the storm warnings. The last thing consumers should have to worry about are different companies and vendors profiting off of yet another emergency.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s research into price gouging throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the importance of access to essential products in all cases of state or national emergency, including the one Texans are currently experiencing.  Here are some tips on how to protect yourself from price gouging, no matter the circumstance:

How can I recognize price gouging?

While price gouging laws and protections vary by state, the umbrella definition includes excessive price increases on essential consumer products or services in the midst of a declared state of emergency. The best way to detect price gouging is to shop around either online or in stores if it’s safe and to use your best judgement. This means several things.

  • Use your own experiences: If you’re searching for a product you’ve bought hundreds of times before and the new price tag sets off alarm bells in your head, it could be worth documenting. This is especially true if you have receipts from previous purchases of that same product as proof. 
  • Shop around: In many cases, it’s impossible to shop around as much as you’d like to in an emergency situation. But if you can compare items across multiple brick and mortar stores or online retailers, it’s often the best way to get a good price. Using price-tracking tools such as Keepa can also help with online searches.

What should I do next?

  • Contact the company directly: If you’re seeing sky-high prices for hotel rooms during a state of emergency, one course of action is to contact the company directly. In Texas, there have already been examples of consumers questioning outrageous hotel room prices, only for the hotel to insist that those listings were not accurate. If you can get in touch with a customer service representative, they may be able to help you sort out a solution. 
  • Report the case to your Attorney General: If you suspect price gouging, you should document all relevant information related to the product listing. That includes screenshots or photos of the product, the price, the time and date, and the location. With this information in hand, you can report any suspected cases of price gouging to your state Attorney General. A full list of contact information and report forms by state can be found here.

In 2020 alone, the U.S. faced multiple hurricanes, wildfires and other severe weather, as well as a pandemic that has upended all of our lives. The winter storm that hit Texas is yet another devastating example of what happens when the infrastructure we rely on gives out. We will almost certainly see more state or national emergencies just in the months ahead. When we lack proper protections that prevent price gouging on essential consumer products, from clean water and lodging to face masks and toilet paper, it’s even harder to keep each other safe.   

This won’t be the last time that an emergency jeopardizes our safety or that bad actors respond by inflating prices. That’s why it’s imperative that we pass strong anti-price gouging legislation at the federal level to help state and local governments protect their communities.

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