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State: Monmouth County Company Scammed Consumers After Hurricane Sandy

The state Division of Consumer Affairs has filed action against a Monmouth County landscaping company that allegedly defrauded consumers in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Stephen’s Landscaping, d/b/a “Stephen’s Garden Center,” allegedly charged exorbitant prices for generators, and selling gasoline without being a licensed motor fuel retailer. The company also allegedly sold generators that had been recalled due to potential fire hazards occurring with use of these generators.

“Consumers scrambled to find generators, fuel, and other basic necessities during the chaotic days right before and after Sandy’s landfall,” Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman said.  “This company allegedly took advantage by charging unconscionable prices – and even putting consumers at risk with the sale of generators that had been recalled due to fire hazards.”

Acting Director Steve Lee of the Division of Consumer Affairs said, “We have charged Stephen’s Landscaping and its owners and officers with taking advantage of the misfortune caused by Superstorm Sandy in order to line their pockets with illegal profits.  The Division will do everything possible to punish those who profited illegally by cheating storm victims and to ensure that victims are made whole." 

During the State of Emergency declared on October 27, 2012 in advance of Sandy’s landfall, Long Branch-based Stephens’s Landscaping allegedly sold 133 generators to consumers at exorbitant prices.  Specifically, between October 30, 2012 and November 3, 2012, Stephen’s Landscaping allegedly sold various models of Powerhorse generators at prices ranging from $800 to $1,550, representing markups of between approximately 82 percent and 155 percent.  Within these five days, Stephen’s Landscaping realized approximately $176,950 in retail sales for 133 generators.

For 77 of the 133 generators sold during that period, the company also allegedly charged an additional $100 assembly fee.  According to one consumer’s account, the “assembly process” consisted of removing the generator from a box and attaching handles and two wheels.  Multiple consumers said they were not given a choice about paying the assembly fee.  Stephen’s Landscaping realized $7,700 in gross revenues by adding the allegedly unnecessary assembly fee.

The charging of exorbitant prices is prohibited under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act. 

Stephen’s Landscaping is also alleged to have sold unsafe and recalled generators to consumers.  According to the Complaint, Stephen’s Landscaping sold recalled Poulan Pro 6600 generators to consumers as recently as the day before Governor Chris Christie declared a state of emergency in New Jersey because of Superstorm Sandy. The manufacturer of the Poulan Pro 6600 had recalled those generators in January 2011 after receiving reports of fuel leakage.  In addition, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission had issued an order regarding the recall, stating that Poulan Pro 6600 generators posed a fire hazard.

The sale of such recalled items is prohibited under New Jersey’s Hazardous Products Regulations.

In addition, as set forth in the Complaint, during the five days immediately after Superstorm Sandy struck New Jersey, Stephen’s Landscaping sold a total of 44 five-gallon gas cans, filled with gasoline, at $50 per can – even though the company was not licensed by the New Jersey Division of Taxation to engage in the retail sale of motor fuel.

The unlicensed sale of motor fuel is prohibited under New Jersey’s Motor Fuel Tax Act.

As of the date of this Complaint, Stephen’s Landscaping has failed to produce certain documents as required by a subpoena served by the Division of Consumer Affairs.  Specifically, Stephen’s Landscaping has failed to provide any documents concerning the prices it paid to suppliers for generators purchased and then sold to consumers prior to the declaration of the Superstorm Sandy state of emergency. 

Investigator Gilbert Horrach and Supervising Investigator Joseph Singh, of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs’ Office of Consumer Protection, conducted this investigation. Deputy Attorney General Natalie A. Serock, of the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section within the Division of Law, represents the State in this action.

Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of consumer abuse, can file a complaint with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200.

Follow the Division of Consumer Affairs on Facebook, and check our online calendar of upcoming Consumer Outreach events.

 

Moto429 May 06, 2014 at 06:36 AM
What scumbags try to make a profit off people at a time like that? Hope the get hit hard.
Fred M May 06, 2014 at 07:59 PM
What about the Tree Service Companies? Their prices were a hell of a lot higher days after the storm. I couldn't believe the prices people were telling me how much they charged. One person told me he had to pay over 10,000 to remove a tree that fell on his house.
ChrisK May 07, 2014 at 10:21 PM
@Sal - No one was FORCED to buy a home during the housing boom either, but people chose to do that & were victims of predatory lending practices. How many people in your circle believed they had been "taken advantage" of by a mortgage company that didn't FORCE them or anyone to sign for an ARM on overblown home prices?? People lived in caves for thousands of years without homes also. Just because people weren't FORCED to buy generators for obscene prices or pay the perverse price of $50 for can gasoline from Stevens, it doesn't make Stevens preying on peoples misfortune during a statewide catastrophe OK. The tree companies didn't have enough vehicles or manpower to get to the fallen trees. This area has never seen anything like this when it came to fallen trees. The tree companies had people working 15 hours days. How big was the tree in question?? How big was the house? Was a crane needed? Ridiculous comparison when tree service companies are specialized service providers that were working working 12-15 hour days during one of the biggest natural catastrophes ever witnessed in NJ. Was a Stevens a state licensed agency/company that was approved to sell & supply the items they woefully over charged for? Were they working 15 hour days putting together & reselling recalled generators for predatory prices & selling full 4 gallon gas cans for $50.00 each?
Dame Bridgid May 08, 2014 at 05:32 AM
@Sal, This business exhibited illegal predatory behavior during an emergency. We have laws against this for a reason. People who buy generators often need them to power medical devices, for example, asthma and other respiratory illnesses can require nebulizers or other assist units daily. Many people were suffering without power. This business was price gouging the vulnerable among us. Assembly fees are normally half the amount these people were charging and they are supposed to be optional. The prosecutors also have solid evidence that Stevens sold recalled generators that were banned from sale for being a FIRE hazard. I guess you would not mind living next to a home or apartment that using one of THOSE generators...Hmmm. The price gouging these people engaged in was bad enough...However, their criminal sales of dangerous recalled generators could have led to further disaster and unnecessary deaths in towns that had no water to fight fires...Remember that area in New York. Whole blocks of homes gone, a community burnt to the ground. Our laws are there to protect us from vultures like these. Let them have their day in court. Then throw the book at them.
Dame Bridgid May 08, 2014 at 05:43 AM
After selling those dangerous recalled units that could have killed the customer...These greedy scum are fortunate the charges do not include homicide!

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