Ferguson calls out price gouging by online sellers

A Mill Creek woman was selling N95 masks at six times regular price, says a cease-and-desist letter.

OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson is taking aim at five businesses, including one in Mill Creek, for selling sought-after products like protective masks and hand sanitizer at exorbitant prices through Amazon.com.

Ferguson sent letters last week to each of the independent sellers with a warning to cease-and-desist charging unreasonably high prices for items in high demand due to the COVID-19 outbreak, or else they could be sued and face hefty fines.

“Price-gouging during an emergency is morally wrong, and a violation of the Consumer Protection Act,” Ferguson said in a statement Tuesday. “These businesses are charging exorbitant prices on products that are essential for the health and well-being of Washingtonians. We will use all of the tools at our disposal to prevent price-gouging during this public health emergency.”

Meanwhile, thousands of residents are urging the state to investigate businesses they think are operating in violation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay home directive.

Inslee announced a new web page Monday allowing people to lodge complaints online. Within minutes of it going live, a thousand complaints had been received, said David Postman, the governor’s chief of staff. The number had swelled to 4,000 by Tuesday morning.

“It’s more than I anticipated,” he told reporters.

Postman said they’ll need to figure out the best means of following up and educating owners of non-essential businesses about the restrictions and why they are in place. They don’t have the people to knock on doors of 4,000 businesses, he said.

Regarding price-gouging, there is no state law which specifically addresses such behavior. It would be considered an unfair or deceptive practice under the the state’s Consumer Protection Act, according to Ferguson’s office.

Ferguson sent a cease-and-desist letter March 26 to JoAnn Chan of Mill Creek. In it, he said he received information from Amazon that she had been selling 3M N95 masks “at an excessive price during the public health emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

She was reportedly selling the masks on her storefront, Unaffiliated Nature, for $41.24 between Feb. 10 and March 16 compared to $6.98 before the emergency, according to the attorney general’s office.

If she did not stop, she could be sued and face fines up to $2,000 per violation, Ferguson wrote.

“In this time of uncertainty, consumers should not have to worry about being charged excessive prices for goods they need to stay healthy. My office will hold sellers accountable for price gouging during this emergency,” Ferguson wrote in the letter.

The attorney general sent similar letters March 26 to businesses in Spokane, Seattle, Gig Harbor and Issaquah.

Other businesses found to be price-gouging during the crisis can expect to get cease-and-desist letters, too, according to Ferguson’s office.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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