State Rep. Matt Simpson stood alongside a bipartisan group of state legislators and law enforcement officials Monday to announce a renewed effort to protect property owners from unlicensed contractors competing for business after states of emergency. His House Bill 194, which passed the House in March by a vote of 97-2 before the legislative session was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, enhances criminal penalties for those convicted of home repair fraud committed under certain conditions.
Known as the Alabama State of Emergency Consumer Protection Act, Simpson said the bill would make such fraud a felony and allow local law enforcement to pursue offenders across state lines.
“[The bill] will be refiled whenever we come back into session and the goal is to be able to protect the consumers,” he said. “The legislature should step up and come in and let the consumers know we hear you. We hear your concerns about people taking advantage of you. What we want to do is make sure the legislature has the teeth and ability to go after and prosecute those people who take advantage of our citizens.”
Assistant Attorney General Tina Hammonds said alleged victims of deceit, fraud, misrepresentation and price gouging already have a number of legal remedies in existing state law, but Simpson’s bill provides added protection during emergencies.
“While thousands of Alabamians from north to south are positively responding to calls for assistance, sadly there are others that see it as an opportunity to prey on victims,” she said. “We are here to send a warning to all who seek to unjustly profit off of destruction.”
Hammonds reported the AG’s Office had received more than 40 complaints of alleged price gouging in South Alabama in the wake of Hurricane Sally, the majority of which originated in Baldwin County. Complainants noted exorbitant prices from some vendors for gas, generators, bottled water, ice, and hotel and condo rentals.
“Price gouging during a disaster declaration is against Alabama law,” she said. While the term is undefined, Hammonds said the law prohibits “unconscionable pricing” of items for sale or rent. “A presumed case” could be brought against any individual who sells goods or services for “25 percent or more above the average charge in the same area within the last 30 days,” when the increase is not due to legitimate increases in product supply or costs.
Hammonds said there is a penalty of $1,000 per price gouging violation, and anyone found guilty of “willful and continual” conduct may be prohibited from doing business in Alabama.
The AG’s Office directs consumers to its website to fill out a consumer complaint form.
House Speaker Matt McCutcheon was there, and noted the Legislature has passed around dozen consumer protection bills since 2011, dealing with issues including tax credits, insurance and home building.
“This is a time when this bill is very important to the people of this state,” he said. “It’s sad to say, but in a time where we should be coming together and helping each other in our greatest point of need, you have people that want to take advantage of individuals and we want to stand firm to say we don’t accept that behavior.”
Baldwin County District Attorney Robert Wilters recommended property owners who are seeking emergency contractors ensure the contractors are licensed and insured and before any work begins, provide adequate documentation on the scope of work, materials used, time to complete the job and itemized costs.
“Be patient with cleanup and recovery,” he said. “When you’re not patient, you have the chance to get scammed. You want things done, you want them done now and scammers are looking for that person who needs something done right now. But if you are scamming or stealing or hurting the people of Baldwin County who are themselves hurting, we’re going to prosecute you to the full extent of the law.”
Bill DeLoney, chairman of the Alabama Home Builders Licensure Board, said licensing requirements in the state are not restrictive, and the average turnaround time to receive a license from the state is less than a week.
“As long as they can come in and have a $10,000 bond, have proof of identification as to whether they are a citizen or not or who they work for, they can get a license in as little as two days,” he said.
Simpson said he expects State Sen. David Sessions to carry the bill in the Senate next year.
“The message for people down here to help is ‘thank you,’” he said. “If you want to do it the right way, thank you. We need all the help we can get, there is more damage down here than we expected. But if you want to come down here and enter into a contract with an Alabama citizen, you have to follow Alabama law.”
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