The Coronavirus: A Price Gouging Epidemic

If you have been to any store recently, you have probably found empty shelves where soap and hand sanitizer usually sit, along with face masks, toilet paper, and disinfectant. The spread of the Coronavirus has led people to flock to their local stores and buy up as much of these and other items as they can.

Unfortunately, some opportunistic retailers — both in-person and online — have taken advantage of this and begun price gouging these items. This forces consumers to pay exorbitant prices for these basic items or go without them.

Warnings to Retailers

In New York, Attorney General Letitia James has issued six letters to stores that were price gouging disinfectant sprays and hand sanitizers; one store in Midtown Manhattan was charging $79 for a single bottle of hand sanitizer.

New Jersey has seen almost 300 complaints of price gouging, leading to warnings being issued to 10 businesses in the state. According to New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, officials are also “routinely checking pharmacies and other establishments for unfair pricing on products such as masks and sanitizers.”

Michigan has new legislation in Senate that is aimed to stop price gouging during emergencies like this. For the purposes of the bill, they have defined price gouging as “raising prices above 10 percent of what consumer goods, lodging or energy products cost immediately prior to an emergency situation.”

Some states already have laws in place to protect from price gouging, but in some of these states, the law only goes into effect if a state of emergency is declared. 

eCommerce Price Gouging

As a response to the price gouging, eBay has banned the sales of all hand sanitizer, face masks, and disinfectant wipes to combat price gouging. They issued a notice to sellers informing them of this; both current and new listings are being stopped, explaining that “These listings may violate applicable US laws or regulations, eBay policies, and exhibit unfair pricing behavior for our buyers.”

eBay is also removing every listing for these items and anything that mentions the Coronavirus; they have removed over 20,000 listings thus far. eBay has a Disaster and Tragedy Policy that explicitly prohibits any attempts “to profit from human tragedy or suffering.” Removing those listing and prohibiting further listings to prevent others from taking advantage of people falls in line with this policy.

On eBay, one listing for a 50-pack of N95 masks had a starting bid of $93 and it sold for $250. Another listing sold a four-pack of 30-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer for $118.

Following backlash, Amazon has begun restricting third-party sellers to that sell these health and safety products and they will not be allowing new postings of these items. The eCommerce giant has also removed over one million products that claimed they could cure or prevent the Coronavirus.

Amazon has also been working with several state attorney generals to “identify and prosecute third-party sellers for taking advantage of customers’ fears surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.”

One example of the price gouging on Amazon was brought to light by U.S. Senator Edward Markey, who found a 24 pack of two-ounce bottles of Purell — which usually costs $10 — was listed for $400.

Pro Tip: If you find yourself in need of hand sanitizer, you can make your own with 99% isopropyl alcohol and aloe vera. Combine 3/4 cup alcohol with 1/4 cup aloe vera in a bowl and beat with a whisk until it becomes a gel. Pour into an empty bottle for use. You can add 10 drops of essential oil or lemon juice to make it smell great.

Etsy mainly sells vintage and homemade goods, but they had to remove thousands of items that claimed to be a protection or a cure against the Coronavirus. They also removed hundreds of novelty items related to the virus.

Photos by Monica Garske

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