Coronavirus: $10 gallon of milk? Area price-gouging complaints spike

Area residents claim unscrupulous companies and individuals are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to sell basic essentials such as toilet paper, milk and other groceries at inflated prices in local stores and online.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office received 90 complaints from the Miami Valley, alleging price gouging between March 1 and April 15, according to data analyzed by this newspaper. Statewide, the number of complaints since March 1 approached 900 this week.

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Paige Woodddell was one of 10 people who filed a complaint with the state after seeing milk listed for $10 a gallon on Walmart’s website. She said she found that price listed for stores in Piqua and Greenville, though similar complaints came from Dayton, Springfield and Middletown.

“When people raise prices to such an amount when we’re in a difficult time in the world, it’s just not OK,” Wooddell told the newspaper. “I reported it because I didn’t’ want anybody to feel like they had to pay $10 a gallon for milk.”

The listed price on Friday was $2.79 a gallon.

A spokesman for Walmart said he was looking into the issue and provided a statement about Walmart’s commitment to fair pricing.

“We’re working around the clock to keep products stocked and prices fair,” the statement says. “We encourage our customers and members to always reach out to us if they have any concerns or identify any product issues, so we can take swift action. It is our position to encourage and support lawmakers’ efforts to protect consumers in times of crisis, and we believe the best way to do that is to lead by example.”

Wooddell’s complaint was received April 10 and she said she received notification Thursday that a case was opened. The next step in her and other cases is that the vendor will be notified and given an opportunity to respond. The state then works to remedy complaints through a voluntary process.

State sues online re-seller

Ohio doesn’t have a statute dealing directly with price gouging, but there are state laws banning unconscionable practices. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost this week filed a lawsuit against a northeast Ohio man accused of hoarding N95 masks and selling them on eBay for nearly 18 times the retail price.

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The lawsuit says an emergency room nurse came across the listing, under the name Donkey476 and urged the man to lower the price because the items are needed by health-care workers like herself and her husband, an emergency room physician.

Donkey476 allegedly responded: “You and your husband should work for free during this crisis, you are greedy!”

In announcing the lawsuit, Yost said, “There’s another word for donkey that immediately comes to mind when thinking about these folks. We will continue to take action against anyone else in this state price gouging during this pandemic.”

Yost also recently joined other state attorneys general in sending a letter urging Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Walmart and Craiglist to crack down on price gouging on their platforms.

Several of the local complaints dealt with people selling items online. One complaint referenced bleach being sold on eBay at $100 a gallon, toilet paper for $162 for 24 rolls, Clorox wipes for $124.

“This person is reselling new store bought cleaning supplies through Facebook marketplace at a high markup to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic,” a man from Enon wrote.

A reporter reached out Friday to someone advertising 18 rolls of Charmin toilet paper on Facebook for $95. The seller responded that it was a joke. “People get so mad over it that I about die laughing while trolling,” the seller wrote.

Price gouging law proposed

Other complaints to the state from this area involved perceived price hikes on things like sanitizer, bread, bottled water and cleaning supplies at grocery stores, corner markets, gas stations and elsewhere.

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Yost is working with state lawmakers on legislation that would give his office new powers to investigate price gouging, and limit sales on certain items to prevent hoarding, during a declared emergency.

“A marketplace has rules to protect both buyer and seller,” Yost said. “When predators try to turn it into a knife fight with no rules, it’s time to take the knives away. There is a difference between a free market and a free-for-all.”

The legislation, Senate Bill 301, has backing from Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof.

“It is important during a crisis that we keep supply chains open, and that people have the opportunity to purchase necessities for their health and safety,” Obhof said in announcing the bill.

Number of price-gouging complaints to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office by county since March 1

Montgomery 27

Butler 17

Clark 15

Warren 11

Champaign 7

Miami 6

Greene 4

Preble 3

Total 90

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