With Hurricane Irene nipping at the heals of our nation’s capital, the Big Apple, and all along the eastern seaboard, people are lining up for storm supplies and gasoline in order to sustain themselves until the storm passes.

Gas Price Gouging. Courtesy of lifeontheedge on Flickr.

But another seemingly insidious problem often rears it’s ugly head during these storms, price gouging. These are unscrupulous businesses that try to take advantage of a disaster or emergency situation by raising prices of goods to obscene levels. They know that ordinary citizens don’t have the time, desire or ability to shop around for a better deal, so they’ll double the price of gasoline or triple the price of canned goods, for example.

It happened during some of the biggest storms on record, including Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Katrina. And it might happen again with Hurricane Irene. But many states are hoping that their anti-price gouging laws will have a chilling effect on any efforts to rip-off consumers.

At last count (as of 2008), 31 states have anti-price gouging laws in effect (PDF), but it remains to be a mostly east coast phenomenon. California, Hawaii and Oregon are the only west coast states with such laws on the books.

While the intentions of these laws are always honorable, there are some very possible situations that the laws don’t address. For example, what would prevent a business from just shutting down during the storm instead of selling their goods? Or what would prevent a large home-improvement chain store from moving valuable plywood and generators in a multi-state disaster from a store in a state with anti-price gouging laws to another state that doesn’t have such a law in place?

Although we would hope that the spirit of community and human nature would prod businesses into doing the right thing, this isn’t always the case. There may not be a solution, but these types of situations need to be analyzed and addressed at the very least.

As for Hurricane Irene, as of the time of this story (Friday, August 26, 2011 @ 2pm PST), no reports of price gouging have been reported in Connecticut, North Carolina and Maryland. (Maryland does not have an anti price-gouging law on the books). Let’s hope for the sake of those affected by the disaster that we continue to hear no reports of price gouging.

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