Editorial: Going after the price gougers
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Editorial: Going after the price gougers

At a time of emergency, there is always the unscrupulous at work.

They prey on the fearful. They try to make a quick buck at your expense. Whether it's a scammer selling an illusory service or somebody else taking advantage of panic buying to dramatically mark up prices, it amounts to much the same: an attempt to take advantage of others.

The COVID-19 pandemic is no different. Many of us already know the story about the pair from Tennessee who tried to hoard 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer. And last week, Amazon announced that it had removed 3,900 (yes, 3,900!) seller accounts for coronavirus-related price gouging on its online platform.

Whether it’s a flood, a fire – or in this case, a pandemic – there’s always somebody out there looking to make a quick, dishonest buck.

The good news is that emergency orders put in place in Iowa and Illinois have triggered both states’ respective price-gouging rules.

It’s a good thing, too. Last week, Illinois authorities reported they’ve received more than 700 complaints, according to the Chicago Tribune. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said midweek his office had received 50 formal complaints and 200 informal ones.

We know that not all of these complaints are founded. And we also know it can be difficult to define what is price-gouging and what is free market activity in a time of panic buying and disrupted supply chains. But price-gouging laws are in place for a reason, and they're a valid tool to police wrongdoing.

We believe the attorneys general in Iowa and Illinois are on the right track by alerting the public – and gougers – that they intend to crack down if needed. Sometimes a word to the wicked can be sufficient. When it is not, authorities should not be afraid to act.

So good for Miller when he says, "We will pursue anyone who persists in this practice, and that includes individual sellers on social media as well as retailers." And cheers to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul when he said recently, "I will not hesitate to use my office’s authority to take decisive action against those that deliberately raise the prices of items that are crucial to stopping the spread of the coronavirus."

On Wednesday, both attorneys general signed on to a letter urging Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Walmart and Craigslist to vigorously monitor price gouging. Thirty-one other attorneys general, Republicans and Democrats alike, also signed the letter. The AGs cited a finding by the public interest research group, U.S. PIRG, that said that when its researchers looked on Amazon for hand sanitizer and surgical masks recently, prices were up at least 50% over a 90-day average.

It may appear difficult to define price gouging as a legal matter, but it’s not hard to see it when it’s in plain sight.

Then again, maybe it’s not so hard to define, after all.

In Iowa, the attorney general says price gouging is the act of "raising prices unreasonably above the price at which the merchandise or service was sold in the usual course of business immediately prior to the onset of the emergency."

Illinois’ price gouging law, which only covers petroleum and fuel products, defines gouging as a "gross disparity" in prices before and during a time of market emergency. (Gov. J.B. Pritzker has issued an executive order that expands state authority to prevent gouging.)

What is a "gross disparity?" What is "unreasonable?"

To some, this may seem difficult to discern. But even if the precise definitions in each state may vary, the idea is much the same. And in any case, we're willing to bet that regular Iowans and everyday Illinoisans wouldn’t find it too hard to sort out. Much of the American economy is laid low right now because of the coronavirus, but it won't be that way forever — and we're willing to bet the public will have a long memory for those who sought to take advantage of this crisis. Perhaps the gougers out there ought to think about that before their next hefty price increase — or their next try at cornering the market on toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

In Iowa, people who want to make complaints about price gouging should contact the AG office's Consumer Protection Division. On the web, you can visit www.iowaattorneygeneral.gov. You can also call toll-free: 888-777-4590. The email address: consumer@ag.iowa.gov.

In Illinois, the attorney general's office encourages people who want to file a complaint to go to this address: https://ccformsubmission.ilattorneygeneral.net. The attorney general's main web site is at https://illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/index.html.

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