The sight of barren store shelves can be chilling, particularly for those who desperately need the items that should be there: toilet paper, thermometers, hand sanitizer.
“It was haunting,” said Philip Berne, 44, of Malden, who visited three stores before finding toilet paper and still hadn’t found Tylenol or rubbing alcohol. “It shouldn’t be happening in a place that’s so developed . . . Now we’re out of the basic essentials to fight illness.”
As people clamor for vital items amid the coronavirus pandemic, law enforcement officials warn that some sellers are taking advantage, and they urge people to report disproportionately high prices.
So far, Massachusetts residents have filed 100 complaints of price-gouging, which the Massachusetts attorney general’s office is investigating. The reports largely involve stores that customers say increased the prices of essentials — hand sanitizer, paper towels, bottled water, cleaning products, and toilet paper.
“No one should be exploiting this crisis and putting the public at risk," said Attorney General Maura Healey. "We are taking reports about price gouging very seriously and won’t hesitate to enforce the laws to stop anyone who inflates prices on essential products that prevent the spread of this virus and keep our front-line workers safe.”
Businesses found to be charging unusually high prices for public health-related goods or services could face up to $5,000 fines per violation.
Healey was among 33 state attorneys general who on Wednesday sent letters warning of widespread price gouging to Walmart, eBay, Facebook, Craigslist, and Amazon, and urging the online sellers to crack down.
The letter cites examples, such as a finding that more than half the prices on hand sanitizers and face masks available on Amazon had spiked at least 50 percent, compared to the previous average price, and one in six products sold directly by Amazon had similarly increased in price.
One Craigslist seller charged $250 for a two-liter bottle of Purell, 10 times the normal price, the letter said, adding that an 8-ounce bottle was priced at $40 on Facebook Marketplace.
The companies have all announced heightened efforts to monitor such actions and even moved to ban certain items from being sold or advertised, the letter said.
But those efforts “have failed to remove unconscionably priced critical supplies,” the letter said. “When consumers cannot get what they need to protect their homes and loved ones — or in this case, help prevent the spread of the virus — consumers suffer not only economic harm, but serious health consequences as well.”
In response, the companies said they were working with attorneys general and had largely taken steps to eliminate price gouging on their websites prior to the letter.
Amazon said it had removed more than half a million listings and used both automated and manual tools to scan for unusual price changes. Facebook said it had removed millions of ads and sales listings for coronavirus-related essentials and used automated detection mechanisms. Walmart said it monitored for price-gouging in real time and had implemented a price freeze on crucial products like soap, hand sanitizer, water, and cleaning supplies. And eBay said it was working to ensure sellers followed local laws. Craigslist didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Last week, Healey’s office filed an emergency regulation to prohibit price gouging of “goods or services necessary for the health, safety or welfare of the public" during a declared state or national emergency.
The regulation, which previously addressed only gas, was expanded to include items such as hand sanitizer, medical masks, and other protective gear. It defines an “unconscionably high price” as one that is much higher than the price for the same good or service before the emergency, or the price at which similar products are being sold by other businesses, when the price disparity is not substantially attributable to increased prices charged by the businesses’ suppliers or increased costs due to “an abnormal market disruption.”
For many consumers who turned to online marketplaces after facing empty store shelves, the prices have been startling.
Victoria Williams, 22, a student at Massachusetts Bay Community College, has scoured stores for toilet paper to bring to her grandmother, but hadn’t found any.
She looked on Amazon, but could only find $350 packages of bulk toilet paper. When she looked for hand sanitizer, all she could find was a 16-ounce container for $275.
“Aside from maybe two or three ridiculous and unnecessary bulk options, there weren’t any normal-priced products I could purchase,” said Williams, who lives in Milford. “It’s harder emotionally than anything, for us.”
Now, shopping for essentials suddenly requires a strategy for many people. Stores sell out of new shipments almost immediately after the products appear on shelves.
John Driscoll Sheehy, 55, a biotech executive who lives in Boston’s Seaport, said he tried to buy a thermometer at CVS for two weeks. They were out of stock on Amazon. CVS workers told him when new shipments arrived. After several visits, he finally arrived at the right time and bought the last $20 thermometer.
“It was funny,” he said. “There were like five people I recognized going in — it was almost like we were all on the same cycle of staking out CVS.”
The attorney general’s office asks people to report price gouging by calling 617-727-8400 or visiting www.mass.gov/how-to/file-a-consumer-complaint.
Naomi Martin can be reached at email@example.com.