SEATTLE — There's no doubt you've looked online to find hand sanitizer, toilet paper, or masks and found prices marked up significantly on sites like Amazon.
Although Amazon has said it would take down price gougers, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has been getting hundreds of complaints from Washingtonians about online sites and brick and mortar stores. He said his office follows up with anyone who writes a complaint.
"We're in the investigation phase right now," Ferguson said.
Ferguson has more than a thousand people in his office, and many in the last few weeks have been investigating price gouging complaints in person. Though the face-to-face operations have slowed because of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, the office is still busy looking at complaints.
Some businesses have been sent cease and desist orders, while others have been given subpoenas to share their practices on pricing. Ferguson hopes these businesses will stop charging customers an unfair price, but if not, he is willing to file a lawsuit.
Aside from looking at current price gouging, Ferguson is looking ahead at how to protect consumers in a future emergency.
Currently, Washington state only has a Consumer Protection Act which says businesses have to be fair. However, what's fair could be interpreted differently.
Right now, a judge would have to decide if a business owner was fair in raising prices during an outbreak or emergency. For example, is it reasonable for a business to raise prices on a product 5-10% when they themselves are struggling to pay their bills?
"I would submit that we're seeing prices going from $4 for a small bottle of hand sanitizer to $50," said Ferguson. "No one's gonna persuade any judge that's not unfair, so a lot just depends on the details."
Ferguson said some states already have price gouging laws in place, and some states have laws that go into effect automatically when the governor declares a state of emergency. Some states only allow businesses to raise prices a certain percentage, while others ban businesses from raising prices on essential items.
The attorney general said his office is doing its homework and looking at what other states are doing with the hopes of drafting legislation for next year. So even though it wouldn't benefit consumers right now, it could avoid future trouble.
"That would bring some more certainty around what are the expectations for businesses, and frankly for consumers, during a time of a pandemic or an emergency like this," explained Ferguson.
In the meantime, consumers are urged to report price gouging concerns to the attorney general's office.