Price gouging a growing concern as consumers scramble for toilet paper, hand sanitizer

Price gouging a growing concern as consumers scramble for toilet paper, hand sanitizer
The state has investigated ten complaints against local retailers for price gouging but said none of the allegations were confirmed. Experts said the ripoffs are largely happening online. (Source: none)

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - About two weeks ago, attorney Victor Bakke asked his staff to buy hand sanitizers for office use.

After checking online at Amazon.com, they found half a dozen bottles for sale for about $7.

But they were shocked to find that the mainland resellers were charging $500 to $1,000 to ship them to Hawaii.

“We were outraged and to a certain extent we recognized ― wait a minute ― this is probably illegal. This is probably price gouging," said Natanyah Ganz, attorney with the Law Office of Victor Bakke.

During a declared emergency like the coronavirus crisis, prices are legally frozen and markups to take advantage of desperate customers are considered illegal gouging.

But it’s not gouging if a retailer sells products that are usually discounted at the full retail price.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs said it has investigated 10 complaints against retailers for price gouging but added that none of the allegations were substantiated.

Consumer watchdogs and retail expert said price gouging is happening. Not by brick-and-mortar retailers, but by online resellers or on the black market.

Roseann Freitas, marketplace manager for the Better Business Bureau, said one of her friends thought she was buying 21 packages of hand wipes online for $27.

But instead, she only got one package that contained 21 individual hand wipes, she said.

“She figured the price when she got (the package) was $1.30 a wipe," said Freitas.

Tina Yamaki of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii said some people are hoarding essential goods so that they can sell them at huge markups in the underground market.

“We are hearing that some people are selling things out of the back of their car on the black market. It’s just really unfortunate that they are making such a profit at troubling times,” she said.

“We’ve heard everything from toilet paper to hand sanitizers to SPAM to Vienna sausages."

While rumors of price gouging surface from time to time during emergencies, documented cases by established retailers are very rare because the penalties are so stiff.

The fines for price gouging in Hawaii range from $500 a day for each violation to as much at $10,000 a day.

And there’s this deterrent: “A lot of times it’s public shaming. You do it, it’s all over social media. Nobody wants that kind of negative publicity,” Yamaki said.

Ganz, the lawyer, added: “So that means businesses and pandemic entrepreneurs should think twice before they take advantage of consumers," she said.

Those who suspect price gouging should keep their receipts and other records of the sale and report it by emailing ocp@dcca.hawaii.gov with the following information: Name of business, location of the business (island, city, area), and details of the item purchased.

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