Citizens made 20 complaints of price gouging after the Memorial Day tornadoes caused massive damages, but some businesses say reports of price gouging were bogus. CORNELIUS FROLIK / STAFF

Citizens complain of price gouging after Dayton tornadoes

Owners say false reports spread quickly on social media.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office received 20 complaints of price gouging after the destructive tornadoes on Memorial Day left many people without water or electricity.

Citizens have accused some gas stations and convenience stores of raising the prices of bottled water after the severe weather disrupted service to about 400,000 people in Montgomery and Greene counties, leading to outages and a water boil advisory.

“It’s infuriating to me that anyone would try to take advantage of the situation,” said Caressa Brown, who complained to the attorney general about a gas station near her home.

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But some business owners say reports of price hikes at their stores were bogus, and they are disappointed false information spread online and by word of mouth.

“We are not that kind of people — people who take advantage of people,” said Izz Mhanna, owner of AM-PM Market on Salem Avenue.

Mhanna said his store did not charge higher prices for water — in fact, it gave away hundreds of cases for free.

After a record-setting number of tornadoes May 27, citizens posted messages on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites complaining that some local businesses were increasing their prices for bottled water in or near areas that lost water service.

The Attorney General’s Office said most complaints it received accused about nine businesses of charging between $10 and $15 for cases of water.

Brown, 39, who lives in Jefferson Twp., said she heard about price gouging from online posts.

She stopped at a store not far from her home and checked the price for a case of water. The case cost $7.99 for generic-brand water, she said.

She said she did online research and found that cases should cost no more than about $4.50.

“That price was expensive,” she said. “There was definitely some gouging there.”

She said area residents, most of whom are low-income, were under the boil advisory and had to stock up on drinking water. She said it was upsetting that some stores tried to profit off a disaster.

“I won’t spend another dime there after what I saw,” she said.

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Dayton City Commissioner Matt Joseph said price gouging is unacceptable and asked the city’s law department to explore potential legislation to prohibit it.

“If you are a business that’s doubling the price of water when people really need it, that’s just against basic humanity,” Joseph said.

Ohio does not have a statute that deals directly with price gouging, but state law bans “unconscionable” sales practices, said Dominic Binkley, spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.

Practices can be unconscionable if the suppliers knew at the time of transaction that the price was substantially higher than the price of similar goods or services that can be readily obtained, Binkley said.

“It is also an unfair and deceptive practice to dramatically increase the price of in-stock products based solely in response to current events,” he said.

The Ohio Attorney General’s office said it would look into every complaint. Binkley said there’s always the possibility that a complaint of price gouging could be the result of a misunderstanding, rumor or other factors.

But some business owners say they never raised prices and information shared online was false.

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Mhanna, the owner of AM-PM Mart, said he does not know why or how a rumor started that his store was charging $12 for a case of water.

Mhanna said it’s absolutely untrue and unfortunate. He said his store doesn’t usually sell water by the case, and when it does, it’s never more than $4.99 or $5.99, depending on the bottle count.

Mhanna said last week his business gave away 300 cases of water, 200 pizzas and plenty of shopping bags. He said people stopped at the mart to try to buy water, but he provide it for free.

Mhanna said his store records transactions, customers are issued receipts and there’s no evidence anyone was charged excessive prices for water. He said AM-PM tries to be a community partner.

Mariyam Shoemaker, 38, of Dayton, said she did not personally visit local stores and see the higher prices herself.

But she said her friends shared photographs online of businesses charging as much as $12 for cases of water.

Shoemaker said business owners should give away or heavily discount the products people need during a crisis in the impacted areas. She said it’s awful that some stores will try to rip off community members they rely for business instead of provide help.

“People should no longer patronize businesses that were doing that to their own communities,” she said.

Shoemaker said she believes some stores raised their prices after the storm but chose to lower them later after backlash from the community.

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