A small general store in the Potrero community is being investigated for allegedly gouging prices during the Border Fire, according to San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob’s office.
The Supervisor's office received reports that the Potrero General Store had allegedly been hiking up prices during this week's wildfire, which devastated the rural border community in southeast San Diego County. As of Friday morning, the Border Fire had scorched 7,483 acres and had destroyed five homes and 11 other buildings.
During a community meeting in El Cajon Thursday, Jacob said any business that is found to have taken advantage of residents during a disaster will be held accountable.
“That is something that is against the law and if they don’t stop it immediately, if they don’t stop it, we'll go after them in a big way,” she said.
Jacob said her office has forwarded the reports to the District Attorney's Office to investigate whether or not such a practice occured in Potrero.
However, the owner of the Potrero General Store said no such thing occurred.
On Friday morning, NBC 7 spoke with Jeff Collins from Jacob’s office who said the owner of the store said he did not raise prices during the Border Fire.
In fact, Collins said the business owner told him he have $2,000 to $3,000 worth of I.O.U.’s to customers who needed to purchase necessities during the wildfire because the ATM inside the store was broken.
According to Collins, the allegations of price gouging were initially mentioned in a newsletter published by the Deerhorn Valley Community Association. The newsletter reads: “Sadly, the Potrero Store has increased prices during this disaster, as well as at the Tecate (US) gas station. These are the closest places for Potrero residents to get emergency supplies and gas. It’s a sad situation.”
NBC 7 reached out to Jacob Friday to further comment on the accusations.
“I was alarmed about stories of possible price gouging and we immediately shared those concerns with the District Attorney's Office and Sheriff's Department,” Jacob told NBC 7. “My office was contacted this morning by a representative from the Potrero store and he was adamant that prices were not increased. I will also pass his information on to the authorities."
Steve Walker, a spokesperson with the San Diego County District Attorney’s office, confirmed the DA’s economic crimes division is investigating the matter.
Walker said price gouging is illegal during a state of emergency and anyone who falls prey to this can report their claims to the DA’s Consumer Protection Unit at (619) 531-4070.
As it stands, the law states businesses cannot “increase prices of essential goods and services by more than 10 percent unless they can prove it was due to an increase in their supplier’s price.”
The law further states:
“The prohibition on price gouging after a disaster applies to consumer food and services, goods or services used for emergency cleanup, supplies, medical supplies, home heating oil, building materials, housing (residential month-to-month rentals), transportation, freight and storage services, and gasoline or other motor fuels. In addition, it is a misdemeanor during 30 days following the state of emergency proclamation for a hotel or motel to increase regular rates.”
The Border Fire forced evacuations of approximately 700 residents in Potrero, a rural community located about 42 miles southeast of downtown San Diego. Evacuees were allowed to return home Thursday evening after all orders were lifted by Cal Fire officials.
Potrero resident Sherry Tani told NBC 7 she was surprised to hear the accusations against the general store and that a business that serves a small community could be capable of something like the gouging allegations.
NBC 7 reached out to the Potrero General Store several times Thursday, but did not hear back.
As of Friday morning, the Border Fire was 45 percent contained, Cal Fire officials confirmed.