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Price Gouging Incidents Follow Coronavirus Outbreak


Have you been to the supermarket, recently tried to buy hand sanitizer, even toilet paper? Basic supplies are selling out in the wake of the coronavirus. And that creates a problem. In times of demand, price gouging can be a big issue. That is something New York Attorney General Letitia James has noticed. I asked her for the evidence that she's seen.

LETITIA JAMES: We've issued a total of six letters to merchants for price gouging of hand sanitizers and disinfectant sprays. In addition to that, we've sent out three cease-and-desist letters to merchants for selling products they claim to treat or cure coronavirus - individuals who've been engaged in deceptive advertising. They include the televangelist Jim Bakker, who had a person on his show selling a product that claimed to treat coronavirus. And what they are doing is nothing short of taking advantage of the fear that's out there throughout the general public. And what we should be doing is spreading facts and not spreading fear.

MARTIN: So it's one thing to put forth a completely fraudulent cure or something that claims to be a cure for the coronavirus. Price gouging is more complicated, is it not? How do you determine when raising prices crosses a line and becomes illegal price gouging?

JAMES: Well, in one particular instance, an individual - a store in Midtown Manhattan - was selling a hand sanitizer for $79. And so there's no definitive answer to that question, but you know it when you see it. And so I don't know of any hand sanitizer that costs almost $80. And so you know it when you see it - when individuals are taking advantage of the market, particularly when a neighboring store is selling the same product for considerably less.

MARTIN: The Justice Department created an agency called the National Center for Disaster Fraud after Hurricane Katrina. Do you think the federal government is doing enough to protect people from getting taken advantage of financially.

JAMES: Clearly, the federal government can do more. I'm not in a position right now to criticize the federal government. It will not inure to the benefit of anybody, and it will not result in addressing the issue of this virus. And what we really should be doing is working together. The federal government should be working with municipal governments, as well as state governments, and providing us assistance and testing and providing all municipalities and private companies testing kits so that we can test the general public.

MARTIN: And lastly, what can consumers do if they encounter what they believe to be price gouging in their state?

JAMES: So let me just say that the office of attorney general - we have - one, urging individuals caution with respect to making charitable donations. If individuals want to report retailers that appear to be taking unfair advantage of consumers, they can report these incidents to the office of attorney general. You can report suspicious charitable solicitations and scams to the office of attorney general - our charities bureau. And if individuals are contacting the general public with respect to investment scams, they can also contact our office, as well as the United States Securities and Exchange Commission.

MARTIN: New York Attorney General Letitia James, thank you so much.

JAMES: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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