Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul says his office has received more than 525 complaints statewide against businesses accused of jacking up prices during the coronavirus pandemic.
Raoul said his investigators are sheltering at home as they conduct telephone interviews with the subjects of those price-gouging complaints.
Some of the increases are legitimate, Raoul said. But businesses found to be unrealistically marking up their prices are being asked to sign agreements with the attorney general’s office not to engage in further gouging, he said.
“We’re like, ‘Hey, cut it out!’” he said. “To devote all these resources to people who are taking advantage of people is bothersome.”
Investigators have found businesses were unfairly inflating the price of water, toilet paper, hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and sprays, surgical masks and other medical equipment, Raoul said.
“The last thing we need is for hospitals and health care providers to be taken advantage of,” said Raoul, whose wife is a doctor.
Businesses that violate their promises to the attorney general could be sued under the state’s Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Practices Act. They could be fined up to $50,000 and be ordered to shut down their business, Raoul said.
No such lawsuits have been filed in connection to the coronavirus pandemic.
Raoul said his investigators also are on the lookout for fraudulent coronavirus “cures” marketed on eBay, Amazon and other e-commerce sites.
Chicago residents have been using social media to warn their neighbors about price gouging and to call on the police to bust them.
One man complained of a North Side gas station selling one-ply toilet paper for $4.99 a roll and marking up hand sanitizer from $2.99 to $12.99. The Sun-Times visited the gas station Sunday and found toilet paper on sale for that price, but the hand sanitizer was gone. Other prices sounded more reasonable: $3.99 for Clorox wipes, for instance.
The Sun-Times isn’t naming the store because the owner couldn’t be reached for comment. The attorney general’s office will investigate, a spokeswoman said.
What’s happening in Illinois is being mirrored nationally.
A survey by the nonprofit Public Interest Research Group of items on Amazon in the early days of the crisis found that even by the end of February, sellers were jacking up prices for hand sanitizers and surgical masks. According to the survey, the 30-day average price for these items was 18.5% higher than the average price for the preceding three months. Some products saw a 50% spike in price.
The Department of Justice vows to go after price-gougers, saying “individuals or companies that fix prices or rig bids for personal health protection equipment such as sterile gloves and face masks could face criminal prosecution.”
To avoid paying too much, the Public Interest Research Group recommends using a price-tracking tool like CamelCamelCamel or Keepa to see if the price of an online product on Amazon has recently jumped.
Another tip: Be cautious about online sellers offering products as singles when they’re normally sold in multiples. It could be a sign that a seller is trying to hike the price.
Consumers should report problems to the online platforms and notify their state’s attorney general.