Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is joining with top justice department officials from 32 other states in urging major online retailers to take action against price gouging by third-party sellers as the outbreak of COVID-19 continues to spread.
On Wednesday, March 25, Rosenblum signed onto a letter led by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro asking companies like Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, Facebook and Walmart to take swift action in preventing sellers on their platforms from taking advantage of consumers during the public health crisis posed by novel coronavirus.
"In the last week, we have heard from dozens of Oregonians who are reporting unusually high prices for essential products being sold online, like sanitizing spray and toilet paper," Rosenblum said in a statement. "We want to make sure all our large online vendors do a better job of watching the marketplace for price gouging behavior."
Last Monday, March 16, Gov. Kate Brown declared an "abnormal disruption to the Oregon marketplace" due to novel coronavirus. That declaration gives Rosenblum's Consumer Protection team authority to take action against any business or online vendor that boosts the price of essential consumer goods by more than 15%.
The move to protect consumers is being led by Shapiro and the nonprofit advocacy group United State Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), as well as partner organizations and justice officials throughout the country like OSPIRG, Oregon's local chapter.
In the letter, Shapiro and co-leading Attorneys General Hector Balderas, New Mexico, William Tong, Connecticut, and T.J. Donovan, Vermont, addressed Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos directly, calling on him to intervene and outlining some egregious examples of third-party sellers jacking up prices during outbreak.
According to the letter, a study conducted by U.S. PIRG's Education Fund found that more than half of hand sanitizers and facemasks available online spiked by at least 50% compared to average price. The study also found one in six of those same items offered directly by Amazon — not third-party sellers — also saw a spike in price.
Another example cited a seller on Craigslist who was selling two-liter bottles of Purell Advanced hand sanitizer for $250 a pop, or 10 times the normal price.
Last week, the New York Times reported a story of a man in Tennessee who hoarded 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer with the intent of making a profit, but Amazon removed his items and thousands of others for price gouging.
"As COVID-19 spreads throughout the country, it is especially important unscrupulous sellers do not take advantage of Americans by selling products at unconscionable prices," the letter from state attorneys general said.
The effort comes as Oregon continues to deal with a shortage of personal protective equipment for hospital workers, first and foremost, as well as the general public.
"Amazon and others have policies in place to kind of keep these product down after they have been put up, but our position is they should be working harder, and hey have the technology to do it, to prevent these price-gouged items from being put up in the first place," said Charlie Fisher, state director of OSPIRG.
According to Fisher, one of the problems with state laws dealing with price gouging is that prosecution of companies or sellers can only be triggered when a governor declares a state of emergency. That didn't happen in Oregon until March 8, with some of the earliest reports of price spikes beginning to surface in late January when the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency. Other states took even longer.
Fisher said U.S. PIRG is also circulating an online petition with more than 257,000 signatures calling for Amazon and others to take immediate action.
In Oregon, Rosenblum's office is also instituting a new price-gouging hotline number to take reports. The hotline has already received more than 100 phone calls and complaints about a variety of issues. The phone number for reporting incidents of price gouging and other scams related to coronavirus is 503-378-8442.
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