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NRIs accused of duping hurricane refugees

Indian American owners of a hotel have been charged with swindling people from Louisiana and Texas.

india Updated: Nov 09, 2005 15:53 IST

The Indian American owners of a hotel have been charged with swindling people from Louisiana and Texas who were fleeing Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and took shelter there.

Attorney General Greg Abbott alleged that Jaswantiben and Rambhai Patel, who own and operate the Quality Inn & Suites hotel in Marshall, took advantage of the declared disasters by charging consumers exorbitant prices for rooms.

One couple from Orange was charged three times more on their credit card than the amount they signed for on their hotel bill, the Attorney General said in a press release.

"Triple-billing consumers for rooms and charging them for services they never requested are exactly the types of behaviour the Texas price-gouging statute is meant to prevent," the release quoted Abbott as saying.

"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 Sep 28 after her family's six-night stay, she signed a bill for $1,089 for the three rooms her family used.

However, when 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, the release said.

It quoted Freeman as saying: "I was furious and shaking because I was so mad." She 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 itemised billing statements.

During and after their stay at the hotel, several consumers, in addition to Freeman, discovered unexplained and unauthorised charges on their credit cards. One consumer from Bridge City claimed she was overcharged $3,192, the press release said.

In addition, two consumers have told the 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 for credit card fraud. She is out on a $3,500 bond.

First Published: Nov 09, 2005 14:05 IST