Conn. watching for gas price gouging

September 13, 2008 4:28:21 PM PDT
Connecticut officials say they will aggressively monitor gas prices over the next several days to guard against price gouging in the wake of Hurricane Ike.Gov. M. Jodi Rell said Friday she has asked the state Department of Consumer Protection to keep an "intense focus" on gas prices, and she asked consumers to call the department's hot line with cases of suspected gouging.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said his office sent out investigators Friday to check complaints and to monitor gas prices over the weekend and into the coming week.

Connecticut, which often has the highest average gas prices in the continental U.S., is no stranger to gas gouging in the wake of natural disasters.

The state settled eight cases with retailers accused of illegal profiteering after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It also collected fines ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 from four of those stations, according to a report from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research.

Blumenthal said Saturday they already had received complaints of bait-and-switch pricing on signs, reports of stations that increased prices more than twice in a single day and other problems.

"A lot of it is simply incredible and a lot of the price increases make no sense economically in terms of supply and demand," he said.

Major refineries closed down on Friday as Hurricane Ike roared into Texas and the Gulf of Mexico, a region representing one-fifth of the nation's petroleum refining capacity.

Auto club AAA and other industry groups say gas prices rose nearly 6 cents Saturday after Hurricane Ike pounded the region.

They say the disruption in supply could push gas prices back over $4 per gallon.

In Connecticut, the average went up 10 cents in one day.

AAA's daily gas prices roundup on Saturday showed Connecticut's average price at just under $3.77 for regular unleaded, up 10 cents from Friday's price.

Blumenthal said that if his investigators determine the increases are from gouging, the offenders will face the double penalty of possible fines and widespread publicity about their shady business practices.

"The potential effect of public shaming is a big deterrent," he said.

Saturday's average of $3.77 in Connecticut was lower than the $3.96 average price one month ago, but one year ago, the same gallon of regular unleaded cost Connecticut drivers $2.89.

Blumenthal and Rell both have said that retailers who boost prices after Hurricane Ike will not only be prosecuted, but publicly exposed.

"We are sending a clear message to gasoline retailers and station owners: It is against the law to take advantage of a natural disaster by hiking prices," Rell said Saturday. "No one will be allowed to use this hurricane to increase their profits."

The General Assembly passed a bill in its last session to make it easier for gas stations to offer discounts to motorists who pay cash. However, some officials say they worry new price increases could erase any savings that drivers might have received from that initiative.

The consumer protection department's hot line is (800) 842-2649.

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