clearn.png
Tuesday April 7th, 2020 9:22PM

$10 toilet paper? Coronavirus gouging complaints surge in US

By The Associated Press
Related Articles
  Contact Editor

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.”

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 slice of reports involved not high prices but 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.

That hasn’t stopped the likes of televangelist Jim Bakker pushing treatments with tiny silver particles and conspiracy theorist and Infowars host Alex Jones advertising toothpastes, creams and other products on his radio show. Both were targets last week of cease-and-desist letters from New York's attorney general, and the federal government has sent seven warning letters over false claims.

In Michigan, 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, A.M. Cleaning and Supplies called the tweeted advertisement a “false post,” lowered the prices and changed sales signs in the store.

The owner, Anthony Marshall, said the higher prices were intended to be for eight bottles — not one bottle, as his advertisement’s text indicated. “We never sold them at that price,” he said.

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, while like other bleach it was sold in a gallon jug, it 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 that people "have access to the items they need to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

In an AP interview this week, Attorney General William Barr pledged that the Justice Department would “come down hard” on profiteers so they are not “taking advantage to further hurt the American people.”

On Thursday, the Justice Department announced it is activating a central fraud hotline (1-866-720-5721 or disaster@leo.gov) and has ordered U.S. attorneys across the nation to appoint special coronavirus fraud coordinators.

Consumers who want to report cases directly to their state's authorities can go to https://www.consumerresources.org/, a website run by the National Association of Attorneys General.

___

Dunklin reported from Dallas and Pritchard from Los Angeles. Michael Balsamo contributed reporting from Washington.

___

Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org, and the reporters on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lalanewsman or https://twitter.com/ReeseDunklin.

  • Associated Categories: U.S. News, Associated Press (AP), AP National News, AP Online National News, Top U.S. News short headlines, Top General short headlines, AP Health, AP Business, AP Business - Consumer News
© Copyright 2020 AccessWDUN.com
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
$10 toilet paper? Coronavirus gouging complaints surge in US
Across a country where shelves are empty and patience thin, authorities are receiving a surge of reports about people trying to cash in on the coronavirus crisis with outrageous prices, phony cures and other scams. An Associated Press survey of attorneys generals in all 50 states found the number of complaints had already exceeded 5,000
12:52PM ( 5 minutes ago )
'Quarantine shaming': US navigates radical new social norms
There's a new type of social policing out there that's developed almost as quickly as the viral disease that spurred its arrival
12:50PM ( 7 minutes ago )
Gabbard ends long-shot 2020 bid, throws support to Biden
Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is suspending her presidential campaign, ending a long-shot 2020 effort that saw her feuding with Hillary Clinton and raising fears among Democrats that she would mount a third-party candidacy
12:42PM ( 15 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
The Latest: Spain concerned about outbreak in nursing homes
Spain’s government is announcing new measures to deal with a wave of more than 80 deaths and hundreds of infections with the new coronavirus reported this week in elderly nursing homes across the country
12:25PM ( 32 minutes ago )
Coronavirus layoffs spark surge in state jobless claims
Applications for jobless benefits are surging in some states as coronavirus concerns shake the U.S. economy
12:10PM ( 47 minutes ago )
Wall Street see-saws up and down as volatility retains grip
Stocks are see-sawing between gains and losses in midday trading on Wall Street Thursday, but the moves are more subdued than the wild jabs that have dominated recent weeks
11:32AM ( 1 hour ago )
AP National News
Trump calls himself 'wartime president' as he battles virus
President Donald Trump is turning to a generations-old law to give the government more power to steer production by private companies
9:52AM ( 3 hours ago )
AP-NORC poll: Fear of virus infection spikes among Americans
Concern among Americans that they or a loved one will be infected by the coronavirus rose dramatically in the past month, with two-thirds now saying they're at least somewhat concerned — up from less than half who said so a month ago
9:26AM ( 3 hours ago )
The Latest: Serbia closes main airport for passenger flights
Serbia has closed its main airport for all passenger flights and is considering a complete shutdown of its land borders in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus
8:52AM ( 4 hours ago )
AP Online National News
The Latest: Canadian-U.S border likely to close Friday
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the Canada-U.S. border likely will be closed to all non-essential travel in both directions on Friday night
12:07PM ( 50 minutes ago )
Central banks act as structural norms break down
Central banks are moving swiftly to stabilize their own economies and coordinating with other countries to make sure commerce can function as structural norms break down in the global outbreak of the coronavirus
12:06PM ( 52 minutes ago )
US mortgage rates climb this week; 30-year loan at 3.65%
U.S. long-term mortgage rates climbed this week in a whip-sawing market amid deepening anxiety over devastation to the economy from the coronavirus pandemic
11:51AM ( 1 hour ago )
AP Business
Amid virus crisis, officials announce health care tech rules
Coronavirus may be at the top of Americans' concerns, but top Trump administration officials tried to switch subjects by announcing new health care tech rules on Monday
5:39PM ( 1 week ago )
China's factories try to shield workers as output revives
Factories in China that make the world's smartphones, toys and other consumer goods are trying to protect their employees from a virus outbreak as they resume production
10:36PM ( 2 weeks ago )
High court debates presidential power on Super Tuesday
The Supreme Court is wrestling with whether to make it easier for the president to fire the head of the agency that enforces federal consumer financial laws
4:08PM ( 2 weeks ago )
AP Business - Consumer News
'Quarantine shaming': US navigates radical new social norms
There's a new type of social policing out there that's developed almost as quickly as the viral disease that spurred its arrival
12:50PM ( 7 minutes ago )
Gabbard ends long-shot 2020 bid, throws support to Biden
Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is suspending her presidential campaign, ending a long-shot 2020 effort that saw her feuding with Hillary Clinton and raising fears among Democrats that she would mount a third-party candidacy
12:42PM ( 15 minutes ago )
The Latest: Church of England advising smaller weddings
The Church of England says couples should scale back their special day because of the coronavirus pandemic
12:37PM ( 20 minutes ago )
Italian virus death toll nears China's as outbreak spreads
The Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus first took hold, is reporting no new homegrown cases
12:36PM ( 21 minutes ago )
US man accused of human rights violations freed in Lebanon
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen says a U.S. citizen has been freed from Lebanon, where he'd faced decades-old murder and torture charges
12:34PM ( 23 minutes ago )