SALT LAKE CITY — State officials have received “lots and lots” of complaints about price gouging during the coronavirus outbreak, according to the director of the Utah Division of Consumer Protection.
Daniel O’Bannon said his investigators are slammed running down tips that businesses are jacking up the price of the stuff consumers need during this time of crisis.
Hot items are water, hand sanitizer, household cleaners, cold medicine and, of course, toilet paper.
It’s against the law to inflate prices during a declared emergency. Violations are punishable by up to $1,000 per violation, up to $10,000 per day. So very quickly, any money gained can make like toilet paper, and go down the drain.
The good news, O’Bannon said, is most of the complaints appear to be situations where consumers didn’t get a joke.
For example, the division investigated complaints that a local fast food restaurant put a sign in the window offering toilet paper for $20 per roll. The manager told investigators it was a joke and that no toilet paper was sold.
“The world doesn’t necessarily realize that they’re trying to be funny when they see, you know, a roll of toilet paper posted online for $50, or whatever the case may be,” he said.
That said, investigators are seeing what appears to be legitimate instances of price gouging.
“A business entity with locations across the Wasatch Front was alleged to have marked up commodities such as water, fruits and vegetables, and other grocery related items,” a statement from the DCP said. “The business asserted that the wholesale cost of their products in many categories has increased during the state of emergency.”
Investigators are looking into it, but price increases “corresponding to increased wholesale costs” are not illegal.
DCP teams are also investigating a business that allegedly doubled the cost of toilet paper.
“The Division is requiring the business to provide records of the wholesale cost of the toilet paper to determine if excessive prices were charged for the commodities,” officials said. “If the allegations of price gouging are proven to be true, the business is subject to significant fines and penalties.”
Other sellers will be receiving warning letters, O’Bannon said.
The statute does not only apply to businesses guilty of price gouging. Any individual seller jacking up the price of goods and selling them in, say, online classified ads, is subject to punishment.
Officials told KSL TV they have received more than 400 complaints of price gouging related to COVID-19 as of Monday. Some of those complaints overlap, with multiple consumers complaining about the same instance of perceived price gouging.
If you see it, make sure you take a picture of it so that you can prove what you say is true, O’Bannon said. Then, DCP officials want to hear from you.
Consumers were encouraged to report price gouging to the Utah Division of Consumer Protection at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 801-530-6300. The DCP will work with the Utah Attorney General’s Office if conduct rises to a criminal violation.