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Price freeze still in effect until Feb. 24

THE Office of the Attorney General’s consumer counsel on Tuesday reminded businesses that price gouging is illegal.

Michele Harris said Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’s declaration to freeze commodity and house rental prices, pursuant to the Consumer Disaster Price Freeze Act on Oct. 27, 2018 following Typhoon Yutu, is still in effect until the governor rescinds the declarations of emergency, disaster or price freeze.

Harris said the governor assesses the progress of the price freeze every 30 days and by Feb. 24, after its fourth extension, he will determine whether to extend it for another month.

“So while a price freeze is in effect it is illegal to raise the price of any item for sale or housing rental including an apartment or condo,” the former chief prosecutor said, speaking before the Rotary Club of Saipan at its regular meeting at the Giovanni’s Restaurant of the Hyatt Regency.

Harris said the Office of the Attorney General will prosecute criminally and civilly any business engaged in price gouging.

She said price gouging is when a business increases prices based solely on a shortage of goods caused by a natural disaster or any other emergency.

A violator faces a $10,000 fine and one year of imprisonment for each violation, she added.

But “outside vendors are not subjected to the price freeze,” she said.

Michele Harris, consumer counsel at the Office on Attorney General, speaks about the Consumer Disaster Price Freeze Act during the Rotary Club of Saipan’s meeting at the Hyatt Regency Saipan’s Giovanni’s Restaurant. Also in the photo are club president Greg Borja, vice president Brian Clayton, president-elect Marcia Ayuyu and club secretary Sonya Dancoe.  Photo by Junhan B. TodiñoMichele Harris, consumer counsel at the Office on Attorney General, speaks about the Consumer Disaster Price Freeze Act during the Rotary Club of Saipan’s meeting at the Hyatt Regency Saipan’s Giovanni’s Restaurant. Also in the photo are club president Greg Borja, vice president Brian Clayton, president-elect Marcia Ayuyu and club secretary Sonya Dancoe. Photo by Junhan B. Todiño

In enforcing the law, the AG’s office also “exercises discretion as much as possible,” she added.

She noted that when some Laundromats on Saipan re-opened after the typhoon, they incurred higher operational costs. “It cost them more to purchase water and fuel their generators to run their machine while providing valuable service because we all want our clothes clean,” Harris said. “The law, hopefully, has some common sense.”

In the past months, Harris said they have received many complaints regarding rent increases.

“We were able to get some apartment rate increases reversed so tenant didn’t have to pay higher rates,” she said. “We are proactive in getting involved in investigating a complaint as it comes to the office.”

She said their goal is to hold businesses accountable for “taking advantage of consumers, especially following a natural disaster.”

As for community members who have hired a contractor to renovate or rebuild their homes, Harris said they must ensure that all terms are in writing and that they have a contract, including for the extra work, as well as a detailed list of materials.

“Before making your final payment, make sure you are happy and satisfied with the job,” she added.

To file a consumer complaint, call the Office of the Attorney General at 237-7500 or email consumer_counsel@cnmioag.org.

Complaint forms can also be filled out in person at the AG’s office on Capital Hill.