It’s illegal, though states vary in their statue of limitations.
During the World Wars citizens from many nations were discouraged from hoarding food and from buying rationed food on the black market. A lot of money went into campaigns to end this kind of behavior, particularly in the U.K. where rationing was enforced between 1939 and 1954. But, another concern is price gouging, a kind of extortion that results when store owners get greedy in times of crisis and inflate the price of medical and sanitary supplies or food. In many states in the U.S. this behavior is illegal, though the statute of limitations and definitions of price gouging vary by location. And, many people do not know how to report it.
In the past few weeks many people have been panic-buying toilet paper, masks, rubber gloves, hand soap, and hand sanitizer gel. Even people buying one extra roll or or bottle each grocery trip adds up over time. Look for these items in any superstore, grocery, or drugstore and the shelves are empty. Because of this, many unscrupulous retailers have been trying to cash in on what supply they do have.
A single bottle of hand sanitizer gel can sell for 100 times its normal market value or more these days and multi-packs of toilet paper have been priced by some at hundreds of dollars. With the threat of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, forcing people to stay in more, it is no surprise that online ordering has seen a sharp increase, something which price gougers online are taking advantage of. A famous case recently involved a pair of brothers who had hoarded 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizerand other other supplies in their garage to sell at an inflated rate. They were kicked off their Amazon store and were later forced to donate the goods since they had nowhere to sell them.
So, how to do you help to report and stop price gouging?
If you shop on Amazon there isn’t a good way yet for consumers to report price gouging. However, Amazon employs teams of people to specifically search for abnormally high prices, especially on things like food, over-the-counter-drug, diapers, soap, gloves, toilet paper, Lysol, and hand sanitizer. These are crucial supplies that most people will need during the next few weeks (or more) of self isolation.
Amazon claims to have already removed tens of thousands of price gouging listings from its platform. If you find one of these sellers, the best thing you can do is to simply not buy anything from them. No matter how desperate these times are giving sellers like these your business only furthers the cycle of price gouging.
EBay is another place where people have been shopping for basic supplies and they do have a reporting procedure in place. If you see someone asking $100 a roll for TP you can follow these steps to report the seller to eBay.
If you see price gouging at a brick-and-mortar store then you should report it to your state’s attorney general. While the market for buying food online is different than non-perishable supplies, the concept of price gouging can certainly apply to grocery stores as well.
You can find out who you need to contact at this government site. Select your state from the drop down menu and you will be redirected to your state’s attorney general page, complete with complaint forms and contact info for their offices. Attorneys general act as the lawyers of the people and often take these kinds of complaints very seriously.
Some states even have a price gouging reporting appso that consumers can quickly report these criminal sellers. Those found in violation often face hefty fines for their actions.