Punish the predators

Published 12:09 am Friday, April 22, 2011

Minutes, hours and days after tornadoes and severe weather struck North Carolina on Saturday, victims who survived the deadly storm system were picking through debris looking for valuables. So were looters.

Those looters, if caught, deserve to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Their actions are nothing but criminal and despicable. What they did is unpardonable.

Bertie County resident Johnny Mizelle, as he fled from the storm system’s fury, watched from the rear-view mirror in his pickup truck as most of his possessions were blown away. Just hours after the severe weather passed, his remaining possessions, including the motor for his fishing boat, were picked over by looters.

As they stole his possessions, they also stole parts of Mizelle’s past and many of his memories.

Looting occurred throughout the state. Earlier this week, five people in Sanford (in Lee County) were charged with looting from a Lowe’s Home Improvement store destroyed by the storm system. Other Lee County residents also were arrested on looting charges. Also, several men in Raleigh were charged with looting from businesses.

State officials have asked people to report any suspected incidents of price gouging, which is as almost as despicable as looting. Anyone looking to profit from others’ misfortune by drastically increasing prices on food, cleaning supplies and other materials needed in the aftermath of such a disaster should face repercussions.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper has a history of enforcing price gouging laws in the wake of past disasters, obtaining millions of dollars in refunds for victims. Expect him to do the same for price gouging victims of this disaster.

“During this time of recovery and repair, consumers shouldn’t be ripped off,” Cooper said Monday. “While most businesses are pitching in to rebuild communities, we will investigate if price gouging is reported.”

Price gouging – charging an unreasonably excessive amount in times of crisis – is against state law when a disaster, an emergency or an abnormal market disruption for critical goods and services is declared by the governor or local governments, reads the attorney general’s website. The law also applies to all levels of the supply chain, from the manufacturer to the distributor to the retailer.

Under the law, the attorney general’s office can put a stop to price gouging and seek refunds for consumers who paid too much. The courts may also impose civil penalties against price gougers of up to $5,000 for each violation.

And don’t forget the con artists and scammers who will be preying on storm victims. Cooper’s office isn’t forgetting them.

Unfortunately, there are some people whose only thoughts after such a disaster is how they can profit from it. Fortunately, if caught, they can be punished.

That punishment should be as severe as possible and as swift as possible.