Authorities in Virginia and Maryland are investigating complaints that Woolco discount stores might have sharply raised prices before starting their current going-out-of-business sale.

The giant chain operates nine stores in the Washington area, including three in Fairfax County, five in Prince George's County and one in Montgomery County.

At issue in the complaints filed with area consumer agencies are fine points of the law -- whether Woolco's advertised offer of 20 to 30 percent off is being computed from the regular price, which is allowed, or some higher price, which is not.

"We have had at least a dozen inquiries and complaints over the past week from consumers who say that the prices on many of the items in the stores were raised prior to and during the sale," said Anthony D. Provine, supervisor of investigations for the Fairfax County Office of Consumer Affairs. "We are doing an extensive survey to determine what has happened."

In Maryland, the consumer agencies in Montgomery County and Prince George's County and the consumer division of the Maryland Attorney General's Office also are investigating complaints about Woolco.

James J. Pirretti, assistant general counsel for Woolco, said the complaints reflect in part a "misunderstanding between some of our customers and the facts." He said Woolco stores held a series of regular sales prior to the going-out-of-business sale. Prices of merchandise on sale during the regular sales, which ended Nov. 21, were then marked back up to their regular levels, Pirretti said, and the going-out-of-business sale offering 20 percent off the regular price began Nov. 23.

"With the sale that ended Nov. 21, there were sales for some high-ticket items such as microwave ovens for $578 and $449 and I think some customers thought they would get 20 percent off those prices at the going-out-of-business sale," Pirretti said. In fact, he said, the stores marked the microwave ovens up on Nov. 22 to the regular price -- which he would not disclose because it varied from one store to another. When the going-out-of-business sale began, Woolco then began selling the microwave ovens for 20 percent off the regular price, he said.

Woolco was in compliance with Fairfax and Prince George's county rules requiring that its stores have a going-out-of-business permit before beginning the sale. But Montgomery County officials said the chain failed to apply for the going-out-of-business license required in that jurisdiction.

Barbara B. Gregg, executive director of the Montgomery County consumers agency, said that the store has been asked to submit the application as soon as possible and that her agency will decide today whether to grant the license. Gregg added that her office has asked the company to explain what warranty protection is available for consumers buying appliances from Woolco.

"They hadn't reached a decision the last time we talked," said George Rose, one of the chief investigators in the Montgomery County office. "But we hope they will handle it by providing the warranty through their remaining Woolworth stores, which will be open after the Woolco stores finish their going-out-of-business sale and close down."