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Coronavirus Price-Gouging Has Become a Serious Law-Enforcement Issue in the DC Area

$250 hand sanitizer? Authorities are telling Craigslist, Facebook, Amazon and eBay to crack down.

Photograph by Tai's Captures on Unsplash

The top law enforcement officials in D.C., Maryland and Virginia joined 31 other attorneys general Wednesday in urging some of America’s most powerful retailers and online marketplaces to step up their efforts to prevent price gouging.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring have signed letters to the top executives at Facebook, Amazon, Walmart and eBay, pointing out previously documented examples of price gouging and recommending ways that the companies protect consumers from such abuse.

“Our Consumer Protection Division has received reports of price gouging from all over Maryland since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  It’s unconscionable that retailers would take advantage of consumers during this worldwide pandemic crisis, and we will take every action we can to stop them,” Attorney General Frosh said in a press released announcing Maryland’s participation in the coalition.  “Online retailers are no exception. If they sell products or services to Maryland consumers, they also must comply with our anti–price gouging law.”

The letter listed several examples of price gouging that occurred on online platforms in March, which were summarized in the press release: “On Craigslist, a two-liter bottle of hand sanitizer was being sold for $250; on Facebook Marketplace, an eight-ounce bottle was being sold for $40; and on eBay, packs of face masks were being sold for $40 and $50.”

The attorneys general urged the executives to take the following measures to prevent this type of abuse, which were summarized in the press release:

“Creating and enforcing strong policies that prevent sellers from deviating in any significant way from the product’s selling price before the emergency by examining historic prices and prices offered by other sellers of the same or similar products;

Trigger price gouging protections prior to an emergency declaration, such as when the platforms’ systems detect conditions like pending weather events or future possible health risks; and

Implement a complaint portal for consumers to report potential price gouging.”

Read the full letters here.

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Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.