The snowballing coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has led to skyrocketing prices for high-demand items like hand sanitizer and face masks. Price gouging is not only deeply unethical, but likely illegal.
Recent media reports of price gouging -- when a seller seizes on crisis-driven demand to spike the cost of goods, services or commodities to unreasonable levels -- tell of $220 packages of disinfecting wipes and $50 bottles of hand sanitizer. Amazon has reportedly removed more than 1 million product listings for price gouging or false claims of effectiveness against the virus. In England, a teenager was suspended from school after charging classmates for individual squirts of hand sanitizer.
A Joplin, Missouri, woman told Better Business Bureau (BBB) in March 2020 that a local gas station was charging $9.99 for a can of Lysol, far above the typical retail price. Raising prices to outlandish levels for critical supplies during a declared state of emergency is unethical and exploitative, especially when many consumers are frightened and frantic. Consumers will remember which businesses took advantage of them during a pandemic or other disaster.
In addition to the ethical lines it crosses, price gouging can be illegal. State attorneys general have issued written warnings to businesses that have spiked prices on hand sanitizers and disinfectant sprays.
The best way to avoid price gouging is to plan ahead for emergencies and have necessary supplies on hand. Ready.gov, a service of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has information on disaster and emergency preparation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the best source of information on the current coronavirus pandemic.
BBB encourages the public to file a complaint with BBB at bbb.org if they suspect price gouging by a specific business. Consumers also can report price gouging, as well as false advertising of coronavirus “cures,” to BBB AdTruth. The state attorney general’s office also takes complaints about price gouging.
When reporting a price gouging complaint, gather as much information as safely possible and follow these three tips:
- Be as specific about the transaction as possible, including the name and address of the business, names of any employees involved, and information detailing the spike in pricing.
- Gather together documentation supporting the price gouging (receipts, photos of products and their advertised pricing, invoices, etc.)
- Compare pricing of similar products with other sellers in the area as well as online. It’s important to note similarities and differences between brands, size/quantity, manufacturers, model numbers, and prices.
For assistance, go to bbb.org or call 573-803-3190.