Emergency declarations have activated state price-gouging laws.
From disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker in Missouri to a convenience store operator in New Jersey, suspected fraudsters are trying to take advantage of the coronavirus panic to trick consumers into buying useless or harmful products, triggering state anti-gouging laws and anti-fraud efforts by state attorneys general.
The New York Attorney General’s Office also sent Bakker a “cease and desist” letter and the FDA and the FTC also have warned Bakker to stop selling the stuff. Missouri was the first state to sue.
Newsworthy events always trigger scammers and the bigger the event, the greater the scams, said Todd Leatherman, program counsel for the National Association of Attorneys General Training and Research Institute and a former attorney for the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office.
That means the attorneys general in each state are quickly swinging into action, and the NAAG has set up a website for consumers to file complaints with each state attorney general’s office.
In New Jersey, local media reported a convenience store owner sold a spray “sanitizer” that burned four children. Manisha Bharade, of Wood-Ridge, was charged with endangering the welfare of children and deceptive business practices.
On the River Vale, New Jersey, police department’s Facebook page, officers warned the public not to use any hand “sanitizer” bought at the River Vale 7-Eleven.
Democratic New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal warned potential fraudsters that they will be prosecuted. “Businesses seeking to take advantage of vulnerable consumers during a State of Emergency will face serious consequences,” he said in a news release. Separately, Grewal said the number of coronavirus-related price gouging incidents has risen to 270 in the state.
In New York, Democratic Attorney General Letitia James ordered two New York City merchants to stop charging customers excessive prices for hand sanitizers and disinfectant sprays.
In a news release, the office said investigators confirmed that an Ace Hardware store in Manhattan was charging customers $79.99 for a bottle of hand sanitizer; and that a market in Astoria, Queens, was charging $14.99 for a bottle of disinfectant spray.
Attorneys general in most states are asking residents to report instances of price gouging to their local law enforcement offices or attorneys general.
More than 30 states have declared states of emergency, which trigger emergency price gouging laws.
“It is rare for a state to interfere with commerce,” North Carolina’s Stein said, but in severe cases he said it’s necessary.
As if being the most vulnerable to the coronavirus was not enough, senior citizens also are most vulnerable to scams.
Sharing information is critical, said Kathy Stokes, director of AARP’s fraud prevention program. “It’s important to report” efforts at fraud, she said in a phone interview. She said the organization for people over 50 is “seeing an upward trend” in scams as news about the coronavirus ramps up.
“The important thing is to look to trusted resources for information about coronavirus — the WHO [World Health Organization] or the CDC,” she said. “Any time you see something that looks like an opportunity or something that will help you, engage your inner skeptic.”