Coronavirus: District Attorney Launches Price Gouging Investigation

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Prosecutors in the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office say they launched an investigation Tuesday looking into possible price gouging during the coronavirus outbreak. The announcement comes as internet retailers Amazon and eBay remove thousands of listings for overpriced items.

In the mad dash to combat the coronavirus, shoppers say it can feel like the hunger games trying to buy simple items like soap online.

“I just started seeing crazy prices all over the place,” Amazon shopper Shannon McKendry told NBC Bay Area. “Bottles of Purell for $450, individual bottles for $75. . . I don't want people to be taken advantage of. There's nothing that's ok about that.”

In California, consumer protection laws prohibit businesses from hiking up prices by more than 10% during a state of emergency.

On Monday, San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe launched a complaint hotline and assigned four staffers to investigate possible price gouging as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. 

“Our first report was [Tuesday]. And it was a person telling us that there was a local store that was selling four rolls of toilet paper. Normally [this package] would go for about $2.50 and [the store is selling it] for $10,” Wagstaffe told NBC Bay Area.

It may just be toilet paper, but Wagstaffe says he’s taking the case seriously and admits this is a new issue for him.  

“I've been here for over four decades and this is the first time we've encountered this,” Wagstaffe said.

Although the coronavirus is a new emergency, price gouging isn’t. Wagstaffe says he and his law enforcement counterparts have learned a few lessons from other disasters like the wine country fires.

“I’ve spoken with all the district attorneys from the fire who dealt with the gouging up there and prosecuted people for gouging up there. Their big thing was you need to be detailed because the [defendants] are going to claim, ‘I didn't know. I didn't realize I couldn't raise the prices,’ that sort of thing,” Wagstaffe said.

That defense, doesn’t work in court and it doesn’t work with consumers like McKendry.

“I want people to be able to have things they need and can afford,” McKendry said.

Representatives for Amazon and eBay told NBC Bay Area that these kinds of price hikes are also against their policies and they are monitoring their platforms to remove violators.

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