State AG Asks Public to Report Pandemic Price Gougers and Profiteers

While most consumers search for scarce necessities, others buy up everything they can find to resell at enormous profit.

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Panic-buying or planning to profit? Think again. Photo: Ted Olinger, KP News

That $5 bottle of hand sanitizer you bought for $50? Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson wants to know about it.

“My office is investigating price gouging in the wake of the COVID-19 public health emergency,” Ferguson said March 11. “We do not identify the targets of our investigations, but we are taking formal investigative actions.”

Shoppers across Pierce County and the state have found shelves barren of everyday cleaning supplies and toilet paper, despite the fact retailers and manufacturers have said there is no threat of a toilet paper shortage and health officials have generally recommended against stockpiling items to discourage panic buying and the creation of real shortages.

When shoppers turn to online outlets, they may find prices many times higher than what they would ordinarily pay. And many have paid it.

Toilet paper may not be critical to saving lives, but surgical masks and gloves are — for first responders and medical personnel.

Unlike other states, Washington does not have a price-gouging statute to limit crisis-pricing, but the Attorney General’s office is investigating both price-gouging and profiteers — individuals who buy up supplies to resell privately at a highly inflated cost, including anyone out of state as long as they were trying to sell to Washington residents.

“We have something called the Consumer Protection Act, which says you can’t engage in an unfair business practice. It’s our view, when there’s a public health crisis ... it’s an unfair business practice to jack up your prices 20 to 30 percent on a common item, which makes it essentially unaffordable for so many who need to it literally save their lives,” Ferguson said.

Toilet paper may not be critical to saving lives, but surgical masks and gloves are — for first responders and medical personnel.

Some consumers have complained about increases in the price of masks and gloves, and Kroger and Home Depot have limited their sale. However, the U.S. Surgeon General has said these items are not effective in preventing consumers from contracting the virus and urged consumers to stop buying them to ensure there is no shortage for health care providers.

Ferguson also urged consumers not to buy “home test kits” or treatments for COVID-19.

“Scammers often prey on fear,” he said. “As the COVID-19 outbreak and response continue, Washingtonians may see people advertising products or services they claim treat or cure the disease. There is no specific antiviral treatment recommended for COVID-19 at this time. Any claims that a product or service can cure, kill, or destroy COVID-19 are probably false, and should be reported to our office.”

To file complaints or report suspected price gouging or scams related to COVID-19, go to www.atg.wa.gov/file-complaint.