Coronavirus gouging complaints surge in US
One store advertised hand sanitizer at $60 a bottle. Another was accused of hawking it at $1 a squirt. Chain stores offered $26 thermometers and face masks at the “everyday low price” of $39.95 a pair, while a convenience store touted toilet paper at $10 a roll next to a sign reading: “This is not a joke.”
Across a country where lines are long, some shelves are empty and patience is thin, authorities are receiving a surge of reports about merchants trying to cash in on the coronavirus crisis with outrageous prices, phony cures and other scams. An Associated Press survey of attorneys general or consumer protection agencies nationwide found reports already exceeded 5,000, with hundreds more arriving daily.
“Greed is a powerful motivator for some people,” said Josh Stein, the attorney general of North Carolina, where the number of reports jumped from 72 to 131 one day earlier this week. “It is inexcusable to prey on people in a vulnerable time to make a quick buck.”
AP’s 50-state survey is the most comprehensive look so far at the emerging problem. In all, 41 states responded with numbers that included both tips and formally filed complaints against mom-and-pop stores and big-box retailers alike.
AP’s count is certainly low also because it only includes cases in which someone went online or called to register a grievance. Many others went to the court of social media to vent their outrage.
“STOP SHOPPING HERE!!” one woman blared on Facebook next to cellphone photos of a Southern California grocery charging $6.98 for a gallon of milk and $14.99 for cheddar cheese. “There are families out there who really need groceries and they’re overcharging.”
Beyond AP's state count, individual cities are carrying out efforts to prevent exploitation. New York City alone has received more than 1,000 complaints, issued 550 violations and imposed $275,000 in fines for price gouging — including one case in which a store was accused of selling bottles of Purell at $79 each. Among the items the city is preventing stores from jacking up the prices on: aloe vera and rubbing alcohol, the ingredients that can be combined to make hand sanitizer.
Three states, including California, refused to share how many reports they've received, and several rural states said they had none. Those that did are still checking out many of the claims. While some have gone to court against sellers, others have determined cases didn’t meet their legal standard for price gouging, which generally involves an increase of more than 10%.
Many states said they try to resolve reports not by pursuing fines or criminal charges but by confronting the retailer, which typically apologizes and lowers the price.
In Maine, investigators had photographic evidence from a shopper showing the $10 rolls of toilet paper. In Tennessee, where state lawyers forced two brothers to stop selling the more than 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer they had hoarded, investigators checked out a tip that a store was charging $1 for each squirt.
There were reports of overpriced rice in Wisconsin and potatoes in Idaho. In Connecticut, a seller reportedly inflated the cost of medical masks 10 times over the normal value. One couple in Ohio reported that a thermometer they bought for $8 at a national chain store cost $26 two days later.
“This is so wrong at a time of crisis,” the wife wrote in her report about the thermometer. “Contact them and tell them they can't do this.”