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I-Team: Swindled During Sandy

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – During and after Hurricane Sandy, thousands of people turned to hotels for shelter.  Yet the New Jersey Attorney General now says several of those hotels ripped off people in need.  So, the CBS 3 I-Team went looking for answers.

Almost everywhere we went, nobody wanted to talk to us.

“Leave the property,” said one hotel manager in Princeton.

“Did you raise prices?  It seems like a pretty easy question to answer,” I-Team Reporter Ben Simmoneau asked a motel owner in Cologne.

“I have no comment.  I’m sorry, I have no comment,” he responded.

The New Jersey Attorney General’s office has now filed suit against five hotels in our area for jacking up prices on people during Sandy.  Generally, an increase in prices beyond 10 percent during a state of emergency is considered price gouging and is against New Jersey law.

“It’s despicable.  It’s offensive,” said First Assistant Attorney General Tom Calcagni.  “Hotel owners were essentially profiteering off the suffering victims.”

Authorities say the Econo Lodge on the Black Horse Pike in Egg Harbor gouged customers 545 times.  In some cases, room rates doubled.  Before the storm, the most the Econo Lodge charged was $99.  Once the emergency began, however, some rooms went for $149, $179 and even $199.

“Is there an explanation?” Simmoneau asked hotel management.

“This is pending litigation,” responded one manager.  “You can contact our lawyers for explanation.”

Management would not, however, provide the lawyer’s name or contact information.

A few miles away, the A-1 Motel on the White Horse pike also doubled some prices, charging as much as $108 for a room that cost $50 before the storm.

“You can’t tell us anything about this?” Simmoneau asked.  “Raising prices from $50 to $90 or over $100 dollars in some cases?”

“I have no comment.  I have no comment,” the manager responded.

It wasn’t just hotels near the shore.

Doug Voight and his wife live in North Jersey and lost power for four days after Sandy.  By the third night, they headed for a Comfort Suites in Mahwah and were charged $200.

“It looked like they had doubled the price that night, for a room that I think we stayed in it 11 hours,” Voight told the I-Team.  “It bothered me a lot that they had charged so much extra for a room when people are in need at that point in time.  It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right.”

Investigators believe that Comfort Suites gouged customers more than 400 times.  We called the hotel for reaction but were told “no comment.”

Investigators believe there were more than 100 alleged price gouging incidents at the Homewood Suites in Princeton.  The Attorney General’s office found at least one occurrence when the price increased from $129 to $229.  When the I-Team asked a manager about it, we were told to get out.

“Please, leave the property,” a manager told us.  “You’re disturbing our other guests.  Thank you.”

In a statement, the owner of the Homewood Suites said it will “work diligently to resolve this matter.”

There has been no resolution to any of the lawsuits.  If found guilty, hotels could face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

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