Oklahoma Tornado Price Gouging, Looters, Traveling Con Artists Mar Storm Recovery Effort

05/23/2013 03:12 pm ET

As Oklahoma begins to recover from the deadly tornado that tore through its central region Monday, officials with the state attorney general's office have reported price gouging, looting and predatory scams in the storm-ravaged area.

Thirty investigators began combing the affected region in the hours following the storm and "immediately found businesses violating the law," according to ABC News. In one instance, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt told ABC, a grocery store was discovered charging customers $40 for a case of water.

The state's Emergency Price Stabilization Act went into effect in 16 counties after Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency, according to local news outlet NewsOK. The law prohibits price increases of more than 10 percent on select goods and services for 30 days after a disaster.

Investigators paid particular attention to hotels, car rental agencies and businesses providing vital goods and services in the storm's aftermath. On Twitter Monday, there was one report of alleged price gouging at an area Hampton Inn, but the matter was quickly resolved after the hotel chain's customer service team reached out via social media.

In a phone interview with The Huffington Post, Oklahoma attorney general's office spokesperson Diane Clay said that, as of Tuesday, the office had received about 10 complaints of price gouging from the storm-affected region. Clay said most complaints involved the price of bottled water, but there was also a report of a hotel overcharging for lodging, and a gas station overcharging for fuel.

The larger concern as the recovery effort moves forward is of so-called "travelers." According to Clay, travelers are con artists that follow storms from state to state, preying on victims by offering services in exchange for cash upfront, then fleeing without doing the job. Services offered by travelers have included everything from debris and tree removal to rebuilding projects.

Residents are advised to be on alert for trucks with out-of-state license plates and attached trailers. Clay told HuffPost that investigators will be monitoring local hotels for possible travelers as the recovery effort continues. As reported by NewsOK, police are checking IDs in an effort to control entry to damaged neighborhoods and to prevent looting.

According to Oklahoma's 9 News, two men accused of looting were arrested in a Moore neighborhood after being found with bags of belongings from destroyed houses. Neighbors told the station that the men had pocketed items while walking through the rubble.

The state attorney general's office is urging consumers to remain vigilant as the recovery effort continues.

“While the overwhelming majority of Oklahomans are focused on helping their neighbors in the aftermath, we have seen a few cases of price gouging and fraudulent claims in the past, so consumers need to be [on] alert,” Pruitt told NewsOK.

Authorities are asking consumers to report price gouging by contacting the state attorney general's consumer protection hotline and to report looting to local law enforcement. In an email to HuffPost, Clay wrote that travelers can be reported to local police as well, but since the office "is responsible for investigating and prosecuting those cases, ... law enforcement typically sends the information to [the AG's Office]."

"The most important thing is they stay alert to avoid being scammed in the first place," Clay wrote.

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May 2013 Central U.S. Tornadoes (GRAPHIC IMAGES)
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