How far have we come in tackling COVID-19 price gouging?

Lots of progress, but still lots left to be done

Grace Brombach

Since arriving in the U.S., the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted everything from our largest industries to our day-to-day lives. The simplest of errands — like a trip to the grocery store — became complicated and potentially dangerous to many Americans. Consumers across the country worried how they would access the items they needed amid shortages of personal protective equipment and toilet paper.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund became concerned that as Americans flocked in huge numbers to online marketplaces, and demand for certain sanitizing and emergency products increased, price gouging would become a widespread problem. Unfortunately, we were right — our analysis into the costs of hand sanitizers and face masks on Amazon revealed severe price spikes.

Since then, U.S. PIRG has partnered with over 370 legislators from 45 states to demand that major online marketplaces take responsibility to prevent price gouging on their sites. Our research has been published or aired in more than 475 media stories, including eight opinion pieces, to further underline the need for quick and effective action.

In response to that growing outcry, several states have introduced bills to establish or improve price gouging laws: Colorado’s price gouging law passed both chambers of its legislature, California’s advanced out of committee with bipartisan support, and Massachusetts’ also passed out of committee.

We even saw the first-ever national protections against price gouging pass in the U.S. House through the HEROES Act, and in April, a similar provision known as the Price Gouging Prevention Act was introduced in the Senate. The newly-formed Hoarding and Price Gouging Task Force held a committee hearing last month on the ways that the Department of Justice (DOJ), FBI and Secret Service are combating price gouging crimes. This task force exists to investigate instances of price gouging and hoarding, as well as manufacturing and distribution of counterfeit Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

When price gouging occurs online and in stores during an emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic, it not only decreases the accessibility of critical supplies, but also places further financial burdens on all Americans. We should not arrive at our grocery store in the midst of a health crisis to find inflated prices and empty shelves. It’s even more unacceptable that price gouging occurs on major online marketplaces — companies that surely have the technological expertise to prevent these price spikes altogether. U.S. PIRG will continue to advocate for price gouging prevention efforts and legislation until consumers can shop in peace knowing the products they buy are fairly priced.


Grace Brombach

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