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Kathie Lerma Minshall and her husband, Dan, walked into the Fingers furniture store on June 11, picked out some home furnishings and received a written price quote, including tax and delivery charges, of $1,315. They still needed to transfer money from one account to another to pay for it, so the sales clerk told them to come back as soon as possible and make the purchase.
When the couple returned on June 14 to the same outlet, on Cullen Boulevard near the Gulf Freeway, Minshall thought it was her lucky day.
Houston had been declared a national disaster area as a result of the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Allison. All over the city, businesses and even residents seemed to be doing their part to help ease the impact of the high water. And Fingers was proudly displaying its own civic spirit.
The store announced a 50 percent-off sale on everything, to "help those Houstonians affected by the flood." Not only was Minshall going to get new furniture, she was sure it would cost only about half what she expected.
The couple picked out the same furniture as before. When the new salesperson began to ring it up, Minshall says, he assured her she would be getting the 50 percent off. Then his customers looked in disbelief at the total: It was $1,637 -- more than $300 higher than the nonsale price four days earlier.
" I felt like [Fingers was] taking advantage of the flood and advertising this big sale, but they weren't really taking anything off," Minshall says.
Consumer fraud agencies say Allison opened many avenues for unscrupulous operators to take advantage of the public in the wake of the tropical storm's flooding.
Dan Parsons of the Better Business Bureau cited several examples of complaints received by the BBB. Some cab drivers near the bus station in south downtown jacked up fares to $25 for taking some stranded travelers on the six-block ride to hotel lodging. Some of those who reached the safety of inns discovered inflated prices; one such report alleges that a motel owner increased his rate from $28 per night to $75 for the same size room.
In another complaint, a woman said a wrecker driver quoted a price of $75 to tow her car to her dealership. The dealership later told her that the wrecker driver charged them $250 -- $75 for the tow and $175 for the hookup. A similar wrecker report claims that AAA left two women stranded on a freeway for nearly 22 hours before responding to their call.
Authorities also received a report that shoppers stopped in to pick up a six-pack of drinks, bean dip and chips -- and were charged almost $30 for those snacks.
Parsons warned that the exploitation may not be as easy or as legal as some might think. One little-known law places a cap on prices during emergencies. This law says it is illegal to raise the prices of goods and/or services more than 5 percent during disasters such as a flood.
Another protection provided to credit card users is the Truth in Lending Act. Parsons recommended that consumers buy with their plastic during fraud-prone emergencies, because the law allows for a partial refund to consumers if they are victimized by fraud in the sale.
"That way if it turns out that misrepresentation has occurred, the consumer has more stable legal standing than with cash," Parsons said.
He also encourages residents to comparison-shop when possible, to get towing price estimates in writing and to check with insurance companies about what is covered in applicable policies.
Another bit of basic consumer advice was followed by Minshall -- if you think you were cheated, complain.
Armed with the first Fingers price quote for her planned furniture purchase, Minshall contacted the original sales clerk. She says she got the runaround.
"He basically said that they could charge whatever they wanted, and that I should have bought the furniture" on June 11, Minshall says. She got a similar response when she spoke with the store manager.
That was when Minshall decided it was time to share her experience with others. She e-mailed her friends about the incident, encouraging them to relay it to others. One of those the message eventually reached was Mike Evans in Fingers' corporate office. Minshall says he offered to take $66 off the original price. The Minshalls refused. They did accept and use the second offer -- a $300 gift voucher.
Evans declined to comment on the dispute, saying only that it was simply a misunderstanding that has since been resolved.
Flood victim Irma Randolph believes her experience with the furniture store was more than a misunderstanding. She needed a new bed and said the Fingers salesperson first told her they did not have a floor model of the basic bed she wanted, so she was instead shown a more expensive one.
Then she was told the mattress and box spring were separate from the bed frame, which would cost $38 extra. When she explained to the salesperson that she already had a frame, he told her that unless she bought the frame the Red Cross would not honor her $290 voucher from that agency.
She wound up paying $145 more out of her own pocket. Randolph says she later checked with the Red Cross and found out the salesperson was wrong -- that the voucher would have been good without her purchasing the frame.