Craigslist price-gougers could face legal penalties for marked-up COVID-19 supplies

A local woman selling 75 disposable face masks on Craigslist for $100 says she "thought to share with neighbors in need!" | Photo: Craigslist
By Sasha Perigo - Published on March 18, 2020.

COVID-19 has inspired solidarity among many San Franciscans, who are offering to make grocery runs for the elderly, deliver free produce, and even chip in money to help pay others' rent.

But not everyone is feeling the cooperative spirit, as some city residents attempt to upcharge their neighbors for supplies on online markets like Craigslist and Facebook.

Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and medical masks are being sold for exorbitant prices.

One woman in the West Portal/Forest Hill area is advertising 100 disposable face masks for $75, which she says is a "good price!" 

"Thought to share with neighbors in need!" she writes in her listing.

Keepa, a company that tracks prices on Amazon, says otherwise: a few weeks ago, prior to the start of the U.S. outbreak, the same box of 100 face masks was sold for approximately $4 on Amazon.

A gallon of hand sanitizer is listed on Craigslist for $300, "priced for the coronavirus situation." | PHOTO: Craigslist

Also on Craigslist, a seller in downtown San Francisco is advertising a gallon of hand sanitizer for $300, with a listing that advertises it as "priced for coronavirus situation." He told Hoodline that he's yet to receive any bids on his listing.

Another Craigslist seller is advertising a three-pack of Lysol disinfectant spray — typically $10.70 at CVS — for $20. A Facebook Marketplace listing offers 48 rolls of toilet paper for $70.

A price gouger in the Sunset District listed a three-pack of Lysol Neutra Air Disinfectant Spray on Craigslist for $20. A single can retails for $3.99 at Walgreens. | PHOTO: Craigslist

Many would consider taking advantage of pandemic-related fears to be unethical. But it's also potentially illegal.

In response to COVID-19, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on March 4.

The order forbids price-gouging under California Penal Code 396. Retailers are forbidden from raising prices on "medical supplies, food, gas, and other essential supplies" by more than 10%.

For comparison, the Craigslist retailer charging $75 for a box of 100 disposable masks has raised prices 1,775% over the original $4.

“Californians shouldn’t have to worry about being cheated while dealing with the effects of coronavirus," California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a public statement.

Violators of price-gouging statutes can face up to one-year of imprisonment in county jail or fines of up to $10,000.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said his office is committed to enforcing these penalties.

"People who try to profiteer from a public-health emergency will be held accountable," Boudin said last week.

A seller on Facebook Marketplace is demanding $70 for 48 rolls of toilet paper. | Photo: Facebook Marketplace

Benjamin Lerman, a Philadelphia pediatrician who has been staffing a COVID-19 hotline, says that hoarders are operating off of medical misinformation.

"For a lot of these objects — paper towels, toilet paper — it sort of goes without saying that there's no medical reasons to stock up on these items," Lerman said.

But even a mask does not prevent healthy people from contracting COVID-19. Only sick people should be wearing a mask when they go out in public, to prevent the spread of the virus, Lerman said.

Hoarding masks can actually impede efforts to contain the virus; hospitals across the country are experiencing shortages of protective gear, due to civilians buying up unnecessary masks. 

As for hand sanitizer and disinfectants?

"It's unfortunate that people are hoarding these items," Lerman said. "Alcohol-based hand sanitizers and disinfectants are some of the best tools average people can use to protect themselves. The only way we as a population can be safe is if everyone has access to these tools."

The Attorney General asks Californians who have information about price-gouging to file a complaint online, call (800) 952-5225, or contact their local police department.

San Franciscans can also contact the city's consumer protection hotline directly at (415) 551-9595.

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