Florida's attorney general on Tuesday said in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, her office has received thousands of complaints about price gouging, including 220 from the Treasure Coast and Brevard County.
The Better Business Bureau, meanwhile, hasn't seen any "horror stories" about fraudulent contractors yet, but some lag time between a natural disaster and scam complaints is typical, said Rod Davis, CEO for the Southeast Florida and Caribbean Division, which includes the Treasure Coast and Brevard.
"It usually takes a few days (for consumers) to find out they've had a problem," Davis said Tuesday. "That's when we start getting calls."
Even before the hurricane approached the coast of Florida, business and legal experts urged people to be wary of scams that frequently accompany natural disasters.
"We often hear stories of how adverse circumstances can bring out the best in people. Unfortunately, it is also true that these same conditions can tend to bring out the worst in others," Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement. "Service scams all have the same target: your wallet."
Reports of unscrupulous practices began to emerge this week, and are expected to continue in the coming weeks.
Price gouging – or selling essential commodities for a severely increased price during a state of emergency – is illegal under Florida statute. Since Matthew, the attorney general has received about 2,500 reports of the practice.
Of those, about 1,500 pertain to fuel prices; 400 to food, water or ice; and 150 to room rentals, said Whitney Ray, director of media relations for the Attorney General's Office.
There have been 45 incidents reported in Martin County, 76 in St. Lucie, 22 in Indian River and 77 in Brevard, Ray said.
Until Matthew, reports of price gouging on the Treasure Coast and in Brevard County were practically non-existent. Following Tropical Storm Erika last year, the attorney general received a total of two complaints; following Hurricane Isaac in 2012, it received six; and after a freeze in January 2010, it received three.
Nearly every Matthew-related complaint has been handed over to the attorney general's Consumer Protection Division for further review and investigation, Ray said.
Already the Attorney General's Office has initiated some legal action, but "cannot comment further as the matters continue to be actively investigated," Ray said.
Those convicted could be charged up to $1,000 per violation and up to a total of $25,000 for multiple violations committed in a single 24-hour period, according to Florida statutes.
Unlicensed contractors who take advantage of natural disasters also face strict penalties.
During a declared state of emergency, the penalty for unlicensed construction activity becomes a third-degree felony, according to the Florida Department of Business Regulation.
Monica Graziani, St. Lucie County Building and Code Regulation manager, said she's hopeful that post-Matthew unlicensed activity will be minimal.
"It's been relatively quiet," Graziani said Tuesday. "It's not like (hurricanes) Jeanne or Frances where there was substantial damage."
Still, the community should be wary of contractors who show up uninvited, Graziani said.
"We highly recommend community members ask for a copy of the contractor's license, make sure the contractor has liability insurance, and make sure they get a contract specifying which services will be provided, including time frames when the work will be completed," she said.
Contractor fraud can be difficult to prosecute, so prevention is key, Graziani said.
"It's very, very difficult to find these guys," she said. "They take the money and they're gone. There's no way to fix it after the fact."
Brevard County has not yet received complaints of unlicensed contractors, "but I'm sure they will start coming through soon," said Denise Campagna, manager of the county's Contractor Licensing, Regulation and Enforcement Division.
Campagna, like Graziani, urged residents to be cautious when hiring a contractor.