In October 2017, wildfires ravaged at least 245,000 acres of land in Northern California, which caused California Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency as thousands of residents flocked to other parts of the state to escape the flames.
While the outpour of support from many individuals and companies was overwhelming, the California Department of Justice said some participated in price gouging — the illegal practice of increasing the cost of food, shelter, medicine and essential supplies by at least 10 percent within 30 days of an emergency or state-declared disaster.
On April 16, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed three misdemeanor charges against one of these alleged price gougers — real estate agent Melissa “Missy” Echeverria.
According to Becerra, Echeverria owns a 2,596-square-foot home on 95 Blanca Drive in Novato, California. Before the wildfires began, court documents said, Echeverria advertised the rental cost at $5,000 per month. Then, on October 9, the agent raised the price to $9,000 per month. In the following week, Echeverria lowered the price to $7,000 per month and then to $5,800.
Court documents said the three price changes were “not directly attributable to costs incurred for offering said rental.”
“In times of crisis, the overwhelming majority of Californians do what is right: we come together and help one another,” said Becerra in a press release. “Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. There are some unscrupulous individuals who engage in price gouging, taking advantage of those who are already suffering.”
“It’s wrong, it’s unconscionable, and it’s illegal,” he added. “At the California Department of Justice, we are committed to ensuring that it’s not open season on innocent victims. I appreciate the strong partnership between my office and the Marin County District Attorney’s Office in this particular case.”
In a phone call with Inman, Echeverria said she had “no comment,” and stated that the home in question was never rented.
If found guilty, Echeverria faces one year in county jail and a fine of up to $10,000. She’s also subject to civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, injunctive relief and mandatory restitution, according to the press release.
“We are working closely with the DAs in the region to investigate and prosecute potential violations of price gouging laws in the wake of the North Bay fires,” the California Attorney General’s press office said in an emailed statement to Inman. “As a result, cases are being filed by both DAs and our office.”
“While we cannot comment on or confirm pending investigations, we would encourage members of the public to contact our office — by going to oag.ca.gov/report — if they have information on potential post-disaster price gouging.”
The California Attorney General’s press office said it was not able to comment further on Echeverria’s case.