Scams, price gouging follow WTC attack 

Dan Ciske was in Montana trout fishing two weeks ago when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. His flight home to Seattle was cancelled.

While trying to get a rental car, Ciske says he experienced price gouging from a company taking advantage of the situation.

The state of Montana has received hundreds of calls about attempted scams and alleged price gouging in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, says Cort Jensen of the state Office of Consumer Protection. About 30 people have actually filed complaints, most of those related to gas prices, but four involved rental cars, he says.

In Ciske’s case, he and his traveling companion had been renting a vehicle from the Hertz agency in Butte for their fishing trip. When they tried to get a cheaper vehicle for the drive back to Seattle, they were told they had to rent a costly Isuzu Rodeo sport utility vehicle.

“It didn’t make sense to get another SUV, except to put us into a higher price rental contract, which was the real reason,” Ciske says.

In a letter to consumers who complained of price gouging, Hertz President Joseph R. Nothwang denies the company exploited the attack. He blames some of the incidents on customers not being familiar with the higher prices for renting a car for one-way travel. He also says that not all Hertz agencies are corporate owned, and that franchises can set their own prices.

Montana has just started its investigation, says Jensen, and it is still unclear how much genuine exploitation there was. In the meantime, most of the rental car complaints he encountered were resolved with voluntary refunds.

Some people have also called the state with concerns that milk and American flag prices would be inflated, Jensen says, but thus far there have been no confirmed reports of either.

“Right now we’re starting to see more scams based on the terrorist attacks than price gouging in Montana,” Jensen says. For example, some scams have involved callers masquerading as charity groups, or institutions seeking personal information.

“People call up and claim to be the bank, saying that your records were blown up in the World Trade Center and they need your account number,” Jensen said. “In Montana we’ve seen a number of people calling up police and firemen asking for donations and at least one of those groups was fraudulent.”

There have also been incidents in the Butte area of people calling for donations claiming to represent the Catholic church, Jensen says.

Citizens who believe they have been victims of a price gouging or consumer scam are encouraged to contact the state Office of Consumer Protection at (406) 444-4500.

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