DENVER (KDVR) — As victims who lost everything in the Marshall Fire are working to rebuild, they can often be targets for scams.

The Colorado Attorney General is actively investigating claims of price gouging of rental properties in the Boulder County area. The Problem Solvers looked into it.

Vrbo has some of the steepest prices for a monthly rental because their site is organized around per-night stays. Airbnb and Zillow showed some of the lowest rates, but they could still range anywhere from $2,000-$9,000 per month for a family of four. 

“People have to be really, really careful, because there are unscrupulous people … that try to take advantage of people,” said Laura Levy, a broker with Coldwell Banker Realty.

Marking up the prices unfairly to take advantage of people in an emergency situation is illegal in Colorado — but what does price gouging actually mean?

Attorney General Phil Weiser says that if “someone takes advantage of vulnerable consumer” and “charges well above what is a normal and reasonable market rate at a time, that can be price gouging.”

Price-gouging law applies to all rentals

Weiser is looking into some price gouging complaints when it comes to rental properties in the Boulder County area. 

“Gouging complaints only come into play when you have an emergency situation. Our price gouging law protects people who are vulnerable because they’ve suffered an emergency and they’re trying to buy an essential good or service,” Weiser said.

The attorney general has sent letters to Airbnb, Zillow, Vrbo and REColorado asking for them to look out for potential abusers. He said if there is evidence of unreasonable price hikes they could be held accountable. 

“We recognize what supply and demand in the marketplace means. When you have less supply, prices may go up. That can happen, but what also can happen is people might sense others as being vulnerable, and take advantage of them and that’s not OK,” Weiser said. 

The letters ask the companies to take the necessary steps to ensure unscrupulous actors are not using their platforms. The AG’s office requested a response by the close of business on Jan. 25.

They note that although the letters were addressed to certain companies, Colorado’s price gouging law applies to any landlord or rental property, including those who do not use the platforms.

The attorney general said any landlord or rental company can be taken to court if evidence of price gouging is found. If you are a victim, report it to stopfraudcolorado.gov.

Marshall Fire victims seeing generosity

FOX31 found that some connected to Marshall Fire victims are not seeing predatory behavior.

“On the contrary, there have been really generous citizens who have reached out to help and make options available,” attorney Natascha O’Flaherty said. “I think in every catastrophe, people show their colors. I think we are fortunate in our respective communities that the vast majority have shown to be unbelievably helpful and generous. Will there be bad actors? Sadly, yes. I have not personally encountered that.”    

“We’re seeing what we always see after a disaster, which is the immediate shock of everything from the initial impact, then we see demand for short-term solutions for people who have lost their homes” Levy, the Coldwell Banker broker, said. So finding locations within driving distance of places like schools “has become very important to people. It’s really hard to find since we just lost 1,000 homes.”

Levy said a majority of these prices are just the market forces at work and the extreme lack of inventory.

“It’s really, really the tightest inventory situation I’ve ever seen. I’ve been in the real estate industry in the Colorado, Boulder area since 1994. I’ve never seen this few amounts of homes and inventory. Since I’ve been here,” Levy said.

Help with housing, claims after Marshall Fire

In order to help consolidate all housing opportunities for those in need, Levy has helped create a database for temporary housing called marshallfirehousing.com

“What we’re trying to create is a list of where they can go for their longer-term needs, whether that’s three months, six months, a year, or even more as they are, you know, putting their worlds back together,” Levy said.

O’Flaherty, the attorney, said that renting is not the only option though. She said outlined three options fire victims have. The first is renting, the second can be working with an insurance adjuster and determining a fair market value, or the third cashing out. Additionally, she recommends people look into claims for ALE, or additional living expenses.

“If you can buy an interim home until you can rebuild your home, you could apply your ALE that way. It takes a bit of negotiation,” O’Flaherty said. “You can cash out. Either cash or rent elsewhere outside your community, if there are no homes to rent in your community. There was also another option we pursued and put in place for a lot of insurance when there weren’t rentals available, and when there weren’t properties available to buy at an affordable price. Some clients renegotiated the fair market rental value of the home that they lost and applied that to putting some RVs on the property site. So the insurance could live on their property, especially if they had livestock or had things tied up into their land and they couldn’t be elsewhere.”