Tuesday, October 25, 2005

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Attorney General Abbott Sues Marshall Hotel Owners For Gouging Texas Coast Evacuees Fleeing Rita, Katrina

HOUSTON – Attorney General Greg Abbott today sued the owners of a Quality Inn & Suites hotel in Marshall for gouging Louisiana and Texas evacuees who were fleeing Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) volunteers.

The Attorney General alleges Jaswantiben and Rambhai Patel, who own and operate the hotel, took advantage of the declared disasters by charging consumers exorbitant prices for rooms. One couple from Orange, who appeared with Attorney General Abbott, was charged three times more on their credit card than the amount they signed for on their hotel bill.

Media Links
Attorney General's Lawsuit Against Jaswantiben Patel
Sample of Unauthorized Credit Card Charges

View Video of News Conference

Jaswantiben Patel

Marshall Quality Inn

“We have significant evidence that these hotel owners exploited hurricane evacuees who were in desperate need of a place to stay,” said Attorney General Abbott. “Triple-billing consumers for rooms and charging them for services they never requested are exactly the types of behavior the Texas price-gouging statute is meant to prevent. I will aggressively enforce this law against anyone who preys on disaster victims.”

When Beverly Freeman of Orange checked out of the Quality Inn on Sept. 28 after her family’s six-night stay, she signed a bill for $1,089 for the three rooms her family used. However, when Mrs. Freeman contacted American Express two days later, she discovered the hotel had charged her $3,126, or three times the amount she agreed to pay when she checked out.

“I was furious and shaking because I was so mad,” said Mrs. Freeman, who filed a complaint with the Marshall Police Department.

According to the Attorney General’s lawsuit, which was filed in state district court in Marshall, the Patels also refused to provide itemized billing statements. During and after their stay at the hotel, several consumers, in addition to Mrs. Freeman, discovered unexplained and unauthorized charges on their credit cards. One consumer from Bridge City claimed she was overcharged $3,192.

In addition, two consumers have told authorities they witnessed Jaswantiben Patel specifically instruct a clerk to charge higher rates if customers had nowhere else to go. If a consumer complained about why the final rate was higher than the advertised rate or the rate presented to them upon check-in, Patel provided them with a FEMA reimbursement application, falsely saying the federal government would refund them any excess charges for their stay.

The price-gouging provision of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA), which is triggered when the governor declares a disaster, prohibits selling, leasing or demanding an exorbitant or excessive price for necessities such as lodging and food during that disaster.

The lawsuit seeks $20,000 per violation of the DTPA, including a $250,000 penalty for violations of the law against consumers who are 65 or older.

The Marshall Police Department, with whom the Attorney General cooperated during the investigation, arrested Jaswantiben Patel on Oct. 7 for credit card fraud. She is out on a $3,500 bond.

Attorney General Abbott encouraged Texans who wish to file a price-gouging complaint to call the Attorney General’s office at (800) 252-8011 or file their complaint at www.texasattorneygeneral.gov.

Abbott also urged consumers to be as specific as possible when filing complaints, providing information such as the business name, address or specific location, contact information, and the price the business advertises and actually charges for a particular item. Consumers are also encouraged to retain receipts and even take photos of the advertised prices, if possible. Digital photos can be e-mailed to the Attorney General at greg.abbott@texasattorneygeneral.gov.