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New Jersey Officials Warn Residents of Possible Scams After Irene

Officials have received 46 reports of price gouging since state of emergency declared

The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs is warning residents to beware of shady businesses and vendors showing up in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

Neal Buccino, a spokesman with the division, said there already have been 46 reports of price gouging since the storm — on items including bottled water, gasoline and hotel rooms.

He said there's been no reports of home repair or charity scams yet.

Buccino said his division has investigated 23 of the cases and none had broken the law, but the investigation is continuing, "While they have found some high prices … the cases we've fully investigated have turned out not to be violations."

New Jersey law forbids merchants from raising prices by more than 10 percent during a state of emergency and 30 days after the declaration is rescinded. Gov. Chris Christie declared an emergency last Thursday.

Daniel Jovic, a spokesman for All State New Jersey Insurance Company, said the agency is aware of two incidents so far involving price gouging.

The first is in Essex County where a contractor charged a 79-year-old woman $6,500 to pump eight inches of water from her basement. Jovic said the woman also gave $1,000 up front for the job. The second is in Middlesex County, where a man received a $7,000 quote for water removal. Jovic said the man did not go through with the job.

"These are jobs that should have taken a couple hundred dollars," said Jovic.

Buccino would not elaborate on the businesses being investigated, their location or say whether they are chain or locally owned stores.

The spokesman said, though, the department is being cautious and trying to inform residents that there could be scammers, "We are sending teams of investigators to every New Jersey county (Thursday) and (Friday)."

Jovic said All State does not investigate the claims, but gives advice to individuals who may be victims.

Arlene Lester, a spokeswoman for State Farm in New Jersey, said the insurance agency received no reports of price gouging or scams to date.

In Essex County, the Belleville, Caldwell, Newark, Verona and West Orange police departments said they received no complaints of price gouging or scams.

Some residents in those towns say they've witnessed prices jump, while others say nothing changed.

Marie Augustin, 49, of West Orange, who said her husband owns a gas station, said she's seen gasoline prices increase, "My husband kept saying, 'Those people are hiking their prices.' "

Victor Errazuriz, 24, of South Orange, said he's seen no change in grocery store prices, "Not at all. Eden Gourmet, Pathmark, ShopRite — they've all stayed the same."

Buccino said investigators will distribute information at municipal buildings, police departments and home improvement stores around the state.

Jovic said price gouging and scams are common after a disaster, "It's not uncommon for unscrupulous contractors to take advantage of people after they've just experienced a catastrophic event."

New Jersey residents can report price gouging or scams by calling the state hot line at 1-800-242-5846 or visiting http://www.njconsumeraffairs.com/disaster.

— Teresa Akersten, Paul Milo, Chris Nesi and Karen Yi contributed to this report.

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