Feds, states crack down on price gouging and hoarding of coronavirus supplies

Attorneys general call on online retailers to help deter extreme mark-ups

Sanitized: Cracking Down

(InvestigateTV) - Since the coronavirus hit the U.S. and stores have been emptied of cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers, entrepreneurs have been peddling the products through online retailers for ridiculous prices.

A two-liter bottle of hand sanitizers on Craigslist sold for $250.

An eight-ounce bottle was listed on Facebook Marketplace for $40.

Packs of face masks were going for $40 and $50.

But attorneys general in 33 states have had enough.

They sent a letter to Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Walmart and Craigslist asking them to do a better job of policing coronavirus-related price gouging.

“While we appreciate reports of the efforts made by platforms and online retailers to crack down on price gouging as the American community faces an unprecedented public health crisis, we are calling on you to do more at a time that requires national unity,” the attorneys general wrote in the March 25 letter.

When governors issued states of emergency, those declarations carried with them provisions to prevent businesses from charging unreasonable prices for necessities.

But even this week, a 4-pack of Scott toilet paper was listed for $30, and a package of Clorox wipes was going for $50.

The attorneys general said that the online retailers must do more to tamp down on unscrupulous third-part sellers, recommending that the retailers:

• Establish policies on price gouging during an emergency and enforce the restrictions.

• Trigger those protections prior to an emergency.

• Set up a complaint portal for consumers to report potential price gouging.

Proactive measures would help prevent price gouging “rather than playing whack-a-mole,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said.

His office currently is looking into allegations of price gouging involving 130 companies.

“This is a real public health crisis, and that there are unscrupulous businesses out there trying to use that to their economic benefit is really sickening and disheartening and it’s something that I will not tolerate,” Herring said.

After the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency, the price of hand sanitizers and face masks more than doubled on more than half of its listings.

Amazon said this week that it had suspended nearly 4,000 accounts for violation of its fair pricing policies.

Ebay told sellers it would block new listings for hand sanitizer and face masks.

Facebook also released a statement on its company website about how its combating misinformation.

Walmart said it’s monitoring its website for unsubstantiated medical claims and inflated prices.

“People have long memories about who ripped them off in a time of need, and who helped them out,” said Barry Moore, of the Better Business Bureau. “If you buy a whole case of $3-a-bottle case of disinfectants, but then you go online and you’re selling them for $25 and $50, and $100 dollars a bottle, that’s going to be price gouging, and there are laws against that.”

It’s not just the states either.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order to prevent price gouging and the hoarding of medical supplies on an industrial scale for the purpose of manipulating the market.

“If you have a big supply of toilet paper in your house this is not something you have to worry about,” U.S. Attorney General William Barr said at a White House press briefing. “But if you are sitting on a warehouse with masks, surgical masks you will be hearing a knock on your door.”

In an interview with Gray Television, Barr said the violations carry serious consequences.

“It’s a felony to violate this, so it could be a year in prison, but more importantly, it lets us take possession of these materials, and take them to the people who need them, and that’s the most essential thing right now,” Barr said.

However, just because an item may cost more doesn’t mean it is a case of price-gouging.

“If something is priced two, or three times more, I doubt it’s going to be price-gouging,” said the business bureau’s Moore. “I think it’s just going to be like hotels do if you go to a NASCAR event. They’ll double or triple your room. Not very fair or not very nice, but hey if you want to see the race, and you need to stay.”

Guidelines vary from state to state, but every attorney general is asking consumers to report potential price-inflation violations to their respective offices.

Complaints also can be made to the federal government’s Antitrust Division’s Citizen Complaint Center at 888-647-3258.

But buyer beware. Even with intervention from state or federal officials, consumers likely will not receive a refund.

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