Unfortunately, every time Oklahomans suffer some catastrophe like an ice storm, EF5 tornado, or flooding event, someone is always there to take advantage of the victims. Even before the snow had settled in on the roads and taken out pipes and heat last week, the scam artists were already at work.

Attorney General Mike Hunter was warning almost immediately of price-gouging schemes, mainly from contractors being hired to make repairs to property and do clean-up projects in the wake of the storms. Hunter reminded everyone that the Emergency Price Stabilization Act has been in effect for all 77 counties – but that will hardly stop miscreants who have their hands out to take advantage of the misfortunes of others.

So while Hunter and district attorneys across the state may be willing to prosecute these evildoers, it's still a case of "buyer beware." Oklahomans have to be vigilant and savvy, and ask questions of those who come calling as purported Good Samaritans. There are a number of steps we should all take to protect ourselves.

First, only use companies you trust and that have been around for a while. Ask questions, even then, because not all established contractors are honest. Always get written estimates from several contractors, with guarantees that the prices will not increase for a certain amount of time. Ignore door-to-door solicitation; those are often seedy characters, and when they use high-pressure tactics, it's almost a sure bet they're bad bets. Never give out credit card or Social Security information. And if a person claims to be with a government agency, take time to check that out.

The best thing anyone can do, if they suspect someone's not on the up and up, is to call the nearest law enforcement agency. Locally, that would be the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office or Tahlequah Police Department. The Daily Press will be in touch with those officials to update readers on any scams they've heard about, as well as any local instances of potential price-gouging.

A word of caution, though. After every extreme cold spell, the Daily Press gets calls from folks claiming the local utility companies are "gouging" them on their bills. As we reported almost daily during this past crisis, Lake Region and Tahlequah Public Works Authority officials were urging patrons to minimize their power usage when they could. That was mainly to avoid rolling blackouts, but it was also because the more electricity, natural gas and propane a home uses, the higher the subsequent bills will be. That's not indicative of price-gouging as much as it is the lack of prudence and efficiency on the part of consumers.

There will be people unable to pay their electric bills as a result of the frigid temperatures, and they'll be calling the newspaper with complaints of criminal enterprise. They may not get the results they hope for. Instead, they should first call their providers for an explanation – and they may also be able to get a bit of a delay in paying their bills. It's worth a try.

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