Businesses passing COVID-19 surcharges along to customers

Coronavirus

(Nexstar DC photo)

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Customers across the country are noticing that some businesses are adding extra fees to their goods and services as a result of the increased costs of coronavirus.

Supply chain costs have increased for products like meat, and almost every business is dealing with the increased cost of cleaning and related supplies.

One Florida lawmaker, who is also an attorney, told 8 On Your Side each instance is fact-dependent and legal advice must be tailored to each specific case. But in general, increasing prices or adding a surcharge may be legal as long as businesses notify the customer upfront and don’t price gouge.

“It’s all about consumer disclosure,” Florida Rep. Mike Beltran (R-Hillsborough) said. “If the business wants to charge more money, and they’re within the lines of the price gouging statute, they just need to disclose that to the customer. It can’t be that you come in to eat your meal and at the end of the meal you get a surprise.”

Florida’s price gouging statute states that during a state of emergency, it is unlawful to sell, lease, offer to sell or offer for lease essential commodities, dwelling units, or self-storage facilities for an amount that grossly exceeds the average price for that commodity during the 30 days before the declaration of the state of emergency unless the seller can justify the price by showing increases in its prices or market trends.

Examples of necessary commodities during Florida’s typical emergencies – hurricanes – are food, ice, gas and lumber. The commodities needed during this pandemic have expanded that list.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office told 8 On Your Side it does not give legal advice, but recommended the following tips for consumers and businesses:

  • Surcharges can be added by businesses, but only the government can assess a “tax”
  • Customers should be notified before the transaction of any additional surcharges or fees about which a consumer may not otherwise be aware
  • Customers should review their bills carefully and challenge any charges or surcharges
  • Consumers can call (866) 9-NO-SCAM or visit MyFloridaLegal.com to file a complaint

Beltran said businesses should also consider the risk of losing customers by adding a surcharge, particularly one that customers may deem excessive during a time when many of them are struggling as well.

“This isn’t a time to make record profits,” said Beltran. “This isn’t a time to disrupt your relationships any more than they’ve already been disrupted by the virus. I just hope people would behave like a regular business.”

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