WASHINGTON — Ready for some sticker shock? The average price nationwide is $4.17, according to AAA.
It’s even higher in places like D.C., where gas is going for $4.35, or California, where a gallon costs $5.44. That’s about $0.60 higher per gallon compared to last week.
Two viewers emailed in listing prices they had seen in Alexandria, Virginia and District Heights, Maryland.
“How can we truly tell if price gouging is occurring or not?” one viewer asked.
What is price gouging? What do local price gouging laws exist?
- Attorneys General Offices for Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia
- Ed Hirs- Energy Fellow- University of Houston
Price gouging is when prices for essential goods rise dramatically during a declared emergency. D.C., Maryland and Virginia have all restricted price gouging in the past, but there is no law on the books in Maryland.
WHAT WE FOUND:
“Price gouging is typically defined as an untoward increase in price due to some sort of perceived emergency or pending emergency,” Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston said.
“Emergency” is the keyword here.
D.C., Maryland and Virginia have all restricted price gouging in the past – but only after a declared emergency.
In Virginia price gouging is illegal within 30 days of a declared state of emergency; in D.C. it’s illegal within 90 days of that declaration.
In Maryland, there are currently no laws on the books. There is a proposed bill that would correct this so that anti-price gouging laws would be triggered with a state of emergency order.
However, price gouging can be restricted following an emergency, if it’s specifically stipulated in the declaration.
That happened during the COVID pandemic, but the authority expired in April 2021 according to a spokesperson for Attorney General Brian Frosh.
On March 23, 2020, Governor Hogan banned “retailers from increasing prices to receive excess profits” for items like food, ice, medicine, batteries, and fuel. Under this order, retailers couldn’t sell or rent items at a price that “increases the retailer’s value of profit by more than 10%.”
D.C.’s law specifically bans charging “more than the normal average retail price,” which it defines for both services and merchandise. Virginia’s law specifically bans “an unconscionable price.”
Hirs explained how that would work at the pump if there were a state of emergency.
“Gasoline retailers don't make a large margin at the pump, it's at best five cents a gallon on the regular unleaded. And so seeing a price increase now to $4.00, $4.05, even $4.25 in some areas— you know, they've increased their profit margin five, six, 10 times perhaps,” Hirs said. “And that gets to kind of on the level of unconscionable— it's not that they've increased the price well beyond what crude oil is trading for, it’s that they've increased their personal take out of it.”
Big picture, since there’s no declared emergency right now, while those price increases might be unsavory, they’re not illegal.
“The anti-price gouging laws typically relate to a declared emergency, but that doesn't keep the rest of us from using the term ‘price gouging’ to describe what appears to be a ridiculous price increase taking advantage of current events, whether it's an emergency or not,” Hirs said.
If you believe you’re seeing gas stations charging exorbitant prices, you can report it to your Attorney General’s office. Even though it might not be price gouging, it could violate some other consumer protection law. For instance, D.C. has a Consumer Protection Procedures Act, that protects against unfair or deceptive trade practices. In Maryland, the AG’s office says they can try to mediate.
Here’s how to file a complaint with your AGs office:
- Texting 202-738-5212
- Calling 202-442-9828
- Emailing email@example.com
- Messaging OAG using the chat feature at: oag.dc.gov/consumer
- Submitting a complaint online at: https://oag.dc.gov/consumer-protection/submit-consumer-complaint
- Consumer hotline (410) 528-8662
- Online here
- By-mail instructions here
- Phone: (800) 552-9963
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Online Complaint Form
- Online Contact Form
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