May 22, 2013 -- Investigators with the Oklahoma Attorney General's office have already uncovered evidence of businesses taking advantage of the recent tornado's devastation by price-gouging in the weather-ravaged region, including a grocery store accused of charging consumers $40 for a case of water.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt told ABC News that 30 investigators from his office started aggressively combing the region for fraud just hours after the tornado tore through it – and immediately found businesses violating the law.
"This is something we were putting in place and starting in motion as soon as we knew the threat existed," Pruitt said. "We're going to places where we think potential harm could occur."
Using a law known as the Emergency Price Stabilization Act, consumer protection investigators are teaming with local law enforcement to catch fraud as it happens. The law was passed after a tornado leveled the same region in 1999 and prohibits price increases of more than 10 percent on goods and services such as water and hotel rooms for 30 days after a disaster. It extends to 180 days for construction-related complaints.
In addition to the $40 cases of bottled water, Pruitt said his team uncovered a hotel in the area that was allegedly overcharging in violation of the law.
"We're looking at everything from work gloves to water to storage units, hotels and car rentals. And long term, we'll be dealing with home construction and repair," he said.
Despite repeated warnings to be on the lookout for scam artists after a disaster, Pruitt said many Oklahomans are still unaware that they can be ripped off.
"They would never anticipate or expect or guess that someone would take advantage of them right now, but this situation is what criminals prey upon," he said.
Pruitt says his investigators are fielding tips from citizens and law enforcement and are operating not only in the area that was directly hit, but surrounding areas where displaced homeowners may end up.
"We pray there is some good that comes out of this, that (criminals) are discouraged when they know someone is there to enforce the law," Pruitt said. "And our citizens should know that they're safe from that."
The Attorney General's office has set up a hotline to report fraud, which can be reached at (405) 521-2029. The office also provides tips on avoiding disaster-related scams: