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 and some shelves are empty, 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. Attorneys general or consumer protection agencies nationwide have found that reports already exceeded 5,000, with hundreds more arriving daily.
“Greed is a powerful motivator for some people,” said Josh Stein, North Carolina attorney general, 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.”
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.
Many people have been on social media to vent their outrage.
“STOP SHOPPING HERE!!” one woman wrote 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.”
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 on watch are aloe vera and rubbing alcohol, 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 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 percent.
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 have been reports of overpriced rice in Wisconsin and potatoes in Idaho. In Connecticut, a seller reportedly inflated the cost of medical masks 10 times more than 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.”
Pennsylvania, which, with more than 1,200 reports earlier this week, had the most in the nation, created an email address dedicated to complaints. Oregon launched a price-gouging hotline this week. Oklahoma’s attorney general is shifting agents to its consumer protection unit.
A small portion of reports involved false claims that products or services can detect or even cure the virus, which in most people causes only mild or moderate symptoms but can be deadly for some. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved no treatments or vaccines, and the National Institutes of Health says no scientific evidence exists to suggest alternative remedies help.
In Michigan, where reports spiked from 363 early on March 17 to 572 March 18, Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office issued cease-and-desist letters instructing businesses and online sellers to correct their pricing or risk further action.
One went to an Ann Arbor cleaning store that used its Twitter account to advertise Purell at prices that soared from $7.50 for one large bottle to $60 in mere days. After customer backlash, the retailer called the tweeted advertisement a “false post” and lowered the prices.
Another warning letter went to the home improvement chain Menards. Some of its stores were accused of doubling the price of a gallon of Clorox bleach to $8.99 and offering two types of 3M respirator masks for an “everyday low price” of $39.95 a pair—more than four times what Home Depot advertised.
“I'm very disappointed with Menards' choice of actions during this uneasy time,” one man who believed he was overcharged for bleach wrote in an affidavit.
Menards spokesman Jeff Abbott said in a statement that the Wisconsin-based chain considered the Clorox price reasonable because, unlike other gallon jugs of bleach, this was more concentrated and would last customers twice as long. The statement didn’t address the respirator masks.
“We are disappointed and are taking this very seriously,” Abbott said.
Authorities in states including Florida were forwarding to the nation’s online retail giants—including Amazon, Walmart, and eBay—reports that third-party sellers on their sites were overcharging.
In a statement, Walmart spokesman Kevin Gardner said the company is “taking a firm stance” against possible price gouging on its Marketplace site. Walmart’s policy calls for removing listings that are unfairly priced.
A bipartisan group of House lawmakers this week urged the Justice Department to police price gouging so people can "have access to the items they need to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”
Attorney General William Barr has pledged that the Justice Department would “come down hard” on profiteers so they aren't “taking advantage to further hurt the American people.”