Concerns over price-gouging as Mass. residents prepare for reopening

Concerns over price-gouging as Mass. residents prepare for re-opening

MALDEN, Mass. — Just about everybody outside the Super 88 Market in Malden was wearing a mask on the morning of April 18. If any of those customers bought their masks inside the grocery store, it would have cost them.

Displayed behind the counter, 25 Investigates found a 5-pack of 9502+ masks, an equivalent to KN95 masks, selling for $50.

KN95 masks sold for less than a dollar each in January, according to Amazon listings.

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Above those masks, a single container of Clorox Wipes was on sale for $24.99.

Another brand of wipes, $26.99.

Super 88 Market's owner, Hong Kong Supermarket, didn't respond to our messages.

However, New York City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection fined Hong Kong Supermarket $69,500 for 139 price gouging violations, according to an April 8 press release.

"I think [price gouging is] getting worse," Debbie Harrington said.

Harrington is the executive director at Homemaker Services, a home health care company in Somerville. She has purchased personal protective equipment in bulk since 1979 and says the level of price gouging in recent months is staggering.

“I’ve been searching around and I can find prices from a dollar a mask to $9 a mask, it’s been outrageous,” Harrington said. “The prices were just jumping dramatically.”

The Massachusetts Attorney General's Office received more than 320 complaints for price gouging consumer products since the coronavirus outbreak began, according to a department spokesperson.

This includes prices on paper towels, bottled water and hand sanitizer.

Nearly 100 more complaints involved the unusually high cost of PPE, like masks and gloves, the spokesperson said.

"If prices sky-rocket because of a crisis or in anticipation of a crisis, that's price gouging," according to Deirdre Cummings, the Legislative Director with the consumer watchdog, Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG).

MASSPIRG recently studied the online sale of masks and hand sanitizer. According to their report, MASSPIRG researches found “more than half of the products’ prices spikes by at least 50% compared to the average price.”

At times, the cost jumped twice as high as the 90-day average, MASSPIRG said.

Businesses are allowed to raise prices during a critical emergency, but some states set a limit on the amount of a price increase, anywhere from 10 to 25 percent. Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently introduced a bill that defines price gouging as any price increase over 10% during a national emergency.

"No business should be taking advantage of the situation just to jack up their prices, it's just wrong," Cummings said.

MASSPIRG fired off a letter to Amazon, Facebook, Craigslist, eBay and Walmart asking the companies to crack down on price gouging.

This month, Amazon's CEO and president Jeff Bezos told stock holders Amazon had suspended 6,000 accounts and removed half a million listings due to COVID-19 price gouging.

MASSPIRG recommends using online price trackers, like CamelCamelCamel.com and Keepa.com, to find a product's price history.

Harrington believes a lot of PPE suppliers are profiting off vulnerable health care workers.

“I do think people are hoarding," said Harrington. “I do think these vendors that are selling these products just have a tremendous amount of it and just want to make a quick buck I want to say it’s going to come back on them. These are hard times, people are suffering."

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