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The Ohio Attorney General’s Office sent letters to nearly five dozen businesses asking them to explain the cost of bottled water they sold during Toledo’s recent water troubles, part of a state investigation into alleged price gouging.
The office received 56 consumer complaints against area retailers, many of them convenience stores and gas stations, for selling bottled water at high prices Aug. 2-4, when 500,000 metro Toledo residents were told to avoid tap water because of toxic algae contamination.
“There was an emergency that was obviously beyond the residents’ control so we want to determine whether or not people were unfairly taking advantage of that,” Attorney General Mike DeWine said Wednesday.
Letters dated Aug. 8 were sent to 58 businesses. They ask for documentation to substantiate the price of bottled water sold before, during, and after the water crisis.
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The attorney general’s office would not provide a list of those businesses but did release the complaints. A spokesman said businesses singled out in complaints are not necessarily the retailers who received inquiries.
The complaints are mostly concentrated in Toledo, though consumers complained about suburban retailers and stores as far away as Port Clinton.
Three consumers, including William Carpenter of Perrysburg Township filed complaints about the Circle K store at 28350 Oregon Rd. in Perrysburg Township. He said the store charged $60 for two cases of Ice Mountain water. Each of the cases contained two dozen 20-ounce bottles.
Mr. Carpenter said a clerk told him the store doesn’t normally sell water by the case, and the price was determined by multiplying the cost of a single bottle by the number in the case.
A Circle K manager did not return a call for comment.
Several stores that were the target of complaints offered explanations for how they priced water during the crisis.
Two complaints were lodged about the $5.99 for a case of 24 water bottles charged by Family Food Center, 1212 N. Detroit Ave. Clint Gorgis, manager of the neighborhood grocery, said customers wiped his shelves clean to get an advertised special of four cases for $10 early in the day on Aug. 2.
Because of high demand, he contacted a Michigan supplier who charged him $1,000 to deliver more pallets of cased water. He set the $5.99 price to help cover the delivery costs and said he dropped it to $4.99 on Aug. 3.
Mr. Gorgis said he believes he has been wrongly accused of price gouging. “Nobody forced the customers to buy anything,” he said. “I only [see] one or two customers talking about it."
Ohio statute does not define price gouging, though the Consumer Sales Practices Act prohibits “unconscionable” pricing.
The attorney general’s office will review responses from businesses and decide whether any prices warrant filing civil suits against merchants, Mr. DeWine said. The law allows for fines of up to $25,000 per violation, though a court ultimately would determine any imposed penalties, he said.
A merchant who ran out of water and had to pay more to restock could rightfully charge more for that water. But it’s another story for those who raise prices significantly for no other reason than “to take advantage of other people’s misery,” the attorney general said.
Businesses are asked to submit documentation to his office by Aug. 22.
Contact Vanessa McCray at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.