The fast-spreading coronavirus has pushed up prices on hand sanitizer and surgical face masks by at least 50% on Amazon. Consumers are paying the price.
According to a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group released Wednesday, the sky-high prices weren’t isolated to third-party sellers. While Amazon has said it was cracking down on price gouging on its vast online shelves, the retail giant was marking up prices, too, the report found.
“In these times when people are so concerned about their health and the risk of catching this virus, I think the only way to protect their shoppers is for them to cap prices,” Adam Garber, a consumer watchdog for the group, told USA TODAY.
The consumer advocacy organization compared the average prices for hand sanitizers and surgical masks before and after the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30. According to the report, the average high price of surgical masks was 166% higher than the 90-day average price.
Data from the Keepa price tracking service shows a box of 10 N95 respirators that sold for $18.20 in mid-January spiked to $199.99 in late February. In January, a case of a dozen 8-ounce bottles of Purell hand sanitizer was selling for about $30 and jumped to $159.99 on March 3, Keepa showed.
The report – which found nearly 1 in 6 of the products sold directly by Amazon had prices spike 50% higher than the 90-day average – comes after USA TODAY reported inflated prices on critical supplies on major online platforms, including eBay, that could violate price-gouging laws in some states.
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Shoppers told USA TODAY that while scouring the internet and Main Street for these critical supplies, they were being slapped with astronomical price tags. Shipping costs also skyrocketed, with one shopper being quoted $500 for ground and $5,000 for next-day air. Many of the complaints involved products sold by third-party sellers of Amazon, Walmart and eBay.
Nearly three dozen states have anti-gouging laws, but they define gouging differently. Florida’s law bans the sale of an “essential commodity” at an “unconscionable price.”
In a statement to USA TODAY, Amazon said price gouging was a “a clear violation of our policies, unethical, and in some areas, illegal. In addition to terminating these third party accounts, we welcome the opportunity to work directly with states attorneys general to prosecute bad actors.”
In late February, Amazon.com said it would monitor its platform for violations but did not say it would ban sales of the items.
Amazon.com has said it removed or blocked more than 1 million products on its platform for price gouging and misleading claims related to the outbreak.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday asking for a plan to stop the gouging and scams. He wrote that while the FTC has warned the public about some scams, and is watching companies that claim to have unapproved treatments, he remains “worried that piecemeal efforts are insufficient in light of the magnitude of this crisis.”
Amazon told Markey last week that it has removed more than 530,000 product offers because of price-gouging concerns.
This week, Consumer Brands Association urged Attorney General William Barr to protect Americans from price gouging of consumer packaged goods as sellers take advantage of the coronavirus outbreak.
“A trillion-dollar company with such advanced technology surely can better figure out how to cap price increases during international emergencies such as the coronavirus outbreak,” Garber said of Amazon. “Elected officials shouldn’t wait for another panic to investigate how online platforms may be enabling price gouging.”
Contributing: Jessica Guynn, Charisse Jones and Coral Murphy, USA TODAY
Follow USA TODAY reporter Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @KellyTyko