New Law in Hand, Maryland A.G. to Hunt Down Profiteers

    Armed with a new law that took effect on Monday, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh is urging consumers who’ve come across price gouging to take note of the incident and file a complaint — even if it occurs online.

    Frosh (D) called it “unconscionable that retailers would take advantage of consumers during this worldwide pandemic crisis.”

    “Our Consumer Protection Division has received reports of price gouging from all over Maryland since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added. “We will take every action we can to stop them.”

    Frosh said online retailers are no exception. “If they sell products or services to Maryland consumers, they also must comply with our anti–price gouging law.”

    The General Assembly approved an emergency COVID-19 measure on March 18 and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) signed it into law the next day.

    Under the law, a retailer is prohibited from increasing the “value of profit” of a long list of essential items by more than 10% — except to the extent preempted by applicable federal law.

    On Wednesday Frosh and 32 other attorneys general urged the largest online marketplaces — Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Walmart, and Craigslist — to “more rigorously monitor price gouging practices” by sellers using those platforms.

    In a letter to the online retailers, the AGs listed several recent examples of price-gouging:

    — On Craigslist, a two-liter bottle of hand sanitizer being sold for $250;

    — On Facebook Marketplace, an eight-ounce bottle being sold for $40; and

    — On eBay, packs of face masks were being sold for $40 and $50.

    Because the law just took effect, Frosh’s spokeswoman, Raquel Coombs, said his office is currently collecting complaints. The next step would be to issue cease-and-desist notices, she said.

    Coombs said Maryland would have standing to go after a profiteer even if the consumer doesn’t make a purchase. The consumer only needs to find the item for sale and take a screenshot of the offer.

    Retailers who engage in price gouging risk civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation and possible criminal prosecution.

    Consumers can take action by clicking the “file a complaint” tab on the Attorney General’s homepage, marylandattorneygeneral.gov.

    If obvious instances of over-the-top price gouging are harder to find now, it may be in part because of the notoriety a Tennessee man generated after he spent days hoovering up all the hand sanitizer and disinfectant products he could find, then tried to sell them for as much as $70 on Amazon.

    The man told The New York Times he expected to make “crazy money” from his efforts.

    The article generated online condemnation, hate mail, death threats — and an unwanted late night visitor.

    The man quickly decided to donate the items for distribution to those in need. The state’s attorney general is now investigating.

    Here is some guidance from the Maryland Attorney General’s website:

    “Except to the extent preempted by applicable federal law, a retailer is prohibited from increasing the sale or rental price of the following goods or services to a price that increases the retailer’s value of profit by more than 10%:

    • Food;

    • Beverages;

    • Fuel;

    • Water;

    • Ice;

    • Medicine;

    • Hygiene and personal care products;

    • Medical supplies or equipment;

    • Cleaning products;

    • Pet food;

    • Veterinary care;

    • Motor vehicle parts and repairs;

    • Building supplies and equipment;

    • Home improvement and maintenance;

    • Storage space;

    • Delivery, including shipping and handling;

    • Computers, related electronic devices, or software programs;

    • Energy sources;

    • Batteries;

    • Internet, telephone, or telecommunications;

    • Video streaming;

    • Website hosting; and

    • Child care.”

    [email protected]

     

    Bruce DePuyt
    Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.