In the past month, Gov. Jared Polis has signed into law two COVID-19-related laws that will help Coloradans fight back against price gouging and unfair debt collection practices.
A half-dozen Colorado Democratic lawmakers, along with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and several consumer protection groups took a victory lap Monday to talk about the importance of those measures, as well as next steps.
Up until recently, Colorado was one of only a dozen states without strong anti-price-gouging laws, according to Danny Katz of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG), which backed House Bill 1414.
The bill, signed into law on July 14, creates a "deceptive trade practice for price gouging during a disaster period." Enforcement comes from the Colorado attorney general, although Weiser on Monday said people should not expect his office to act as their own attorneys on price-gouging issues.
"We aren't going to" take action on every complaint, Weiser said, but if his office received multiple complaints on the same company, that could prompt the attorney general to investigate those complaints.
However, he also said his office has seen "historic" levels of reporting on price gouging.
As the pandemic took off, so did price gouging, Katz said. He cited inflated prices for masks, from a normal $1 per mask to $4, and toilet paper, which in some cases has tripled in price.
Weiser noted scams around hand sanitizer that is methanol-based and toxic. "Once we start investigating," sometimes that's enough for a scam artist to stop selling the product, Weiser said.
The new law does include an exception, if a business can prove that it has increased prices due to high prices from suppliers.
The items and services covered under the price-gouging law include:
- building materials
- consumer food items
- emergency supplies
- medical supplies and other necessities
- repair or reconstruction services
- transportation, freight, or storage services
- services used in an emergency cleanup
The bill's sponsors were Sens. Mike Foote of Lafayette and Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood, and Reps. Brianna Titone of Arvada and Mike Weissman of Aurora.
Colorado's track record on consumer protections has been pretty dismal, according to Cate Blackford of the Bell Policy Center. Last year, the National Consumer Law Center's annual report gave Colorado a "D" for its weak consumer protection laws, particularly in the area of state protections for family finances.
That's where Senate Bill 211, signed into law on June 29, comes in.
The measure, sponsored by Sens. Julie Gonzales of Denver and Faith Winter of Westminster, and Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver, is a short-term measure on the issue of debt collection. Between now and Nov. 1, debt collectors are prohibited from enacting new "extraordinary" collection actions, defined in the law as any any action related to a levy or garnishment. However, the law includes a caveat that it could be extended through Feb. 1, 2021 if the pandemic is still creating financial stress.
According to the bill's fiscal note, Colorado courts issued 9,304 garnishment orders in 2019-20.
The law exempts up to $4,000 in bank accounts held by the debtor through Sept. 1, 2022.
Gonzales said lawmakers will continue to work on other issues to help Coloradans through the pandemic crisis, such as housing and evictions. They originally hoped the pandemic would be under control by the summer and the economy would head into recovery.
"What summer has demonstrated is that this will be a complicated slog of a process," she said.
Lawmakers are still looking at policies that respond to the pandemic. Blackford noted 420,000 Coloradans are now at risk of homelessness in the next month, and consumer protections need to be expanded.
Gonzales pointed out that the General Assembly set aside $20 million within the Department of Local Affairs for housing assistance but that the money is little more than "a drop in the bucket."
To file a complaint related to debt collection or price gouging, go to stopfraudcolorado.gov.