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You can tell attorney general about price gouging, but he likely won’t sue. Here’s why


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Some people are using the coronavirus scare to make money. They buy hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes or tight-fitting N95 face masks, then sell them online for far more than they paid.

On Friday, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said Gov. Brad Little’s declaration of emergency that day had kicked the state’s price gouging law into effect. He invited people to file complaints with his office. By Monday afternoon, 20 Idahoans had.

RELATED | Newsmakers: Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden

But they shouldn’t expect Wasden to take those complaints to court in a search for justice. He probably won’t.

And it is limited to just four kinds of items: fuel, food, drugs and water. No hand sanitizer. No Clorox wipes. No face masks or toilet paper.

Of the 20 complaints, just four involved one of the eligible categories:

  • An Eagle man said gasoline is selling now for $2.55 per gallon, and gas prices do not fall when the price of crude oil does.
  • An Emmett man said one supermarket had raised the price of milk 80 cents per gallon since the emergency declaration.
  • A person who asked to remain anonymous complained about an Owyhee County resident selling free-range, farm-fresh eggs on Facebook for $10 a dozen, five times as much as 19 months ago.
  • A Magic Valley woman said one supermarket was selling 24-bottle packages of water for $6 and four-roll packs of toilet paper for $5.99, while another was selling beans and rice for $3.49 a pound.

Biggest complaint: toilet paper

Seven more of the 20 complaints involved toilet paper, which has largely disappeared from store shelves since last week. The rest involved hand sanitizer, face masks, ammunition, day care, napkins, storage services and general questions.

What will Wasden and his staff do for those people?

“We are going to be telling them exactly what the law says — that it doesn’t cover the items they are mentioning,” Deputy Attorney General Stephanie Guyon said by phone. “Right now there isn’t much that can be done.”

toilet paper empty shelves walmart
Even with a limit of two packages per customer, Boise’s Costco store has struggled to keep toilet paper in stock. | John Sowell, Idaho Statesman

What about the four complaints in the eligible categories?

“We will review the complaints, the information they provided, and evaluate what they reported,” she said. “If there’s any follow-up that we need to do with the company, we will certainly do that.”

The law does not say what makes a price exorbitant or excessive. It does require officials to take into account any “additional costs of doing business incurred by the alleged violator because of the disaster or emergency.”

If Wasden’s lawyers decide that any seller violated the law, “we will contact the business and let them know that we think there may be a violation here, and this is what you need to comply with the statute,” Guyon said. “Nine times out of 10, all it takes is a letter from our office to get a business’s attention.”

The final option is a lawsuit. History suggests that’s unlikely. Guyon said she doesn’t think the state has sued for price gouging since she joined the AG’s Office in 2003.

Law last triggered by Hurricane Katrina

In fact, the last time the price-gouging law was triggered was 15 years ago, in 2005. President George W. Bush and Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne declared states of emergency after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Idaho’s declaration was aimed at allowing the state to support Katrina victims throughout the United States.

Gasoline prices rose 40 cents a gallon, to an average $2.87, after Katrina. Wasden launched an investigation that resulted in a report the next year. It explained how the gasoline market worked in Idaho but concluded that Idaho retailers had done nothing wrong.

“Under our laws, the marketplace determines the price,” said Scott Graf, Wasden’s spokesman, by phone. “It’s not illegal for things to be expensive in our state.”

Asked if the law needed to be revised, Guyon said she had no opinion. “Our office enforces the law,” she said. People who think it should be changed should contact their legislators, she said.

Guyon expects more complaints to come the attorney general’s way in the coming days. “I think a lot of people have a lot of questions,” she said. “They should continue to report the problems they see. I hope they do.”

Deceptive ads offer cure for coronavirus

The Consumer Protection Act’s other provisions do not depend upon a state of emergency, so they’re always in effect. The law mostly prohibits deceptive sales and marketing practices.

That includes ads such as offers of cures for the coronavirus, which has no known cure or even a vaccine. Guyon said Wasden’s office has received “two or three” complaints about those. They will be investigated, letters will be sent to any violators, and the lawsuit option is available if needed, she said.

Meanwhile, big online retailers are stepping in to curb gouging. Amazon has taken down thousands of listings it said were price gouging, and eBay has banned the sale of hand sanitizers and masks.

Graf said some business practices may not violate Idaho law but are still unethical.

“We’re asking Idahoans to be good neighbors,” he said. “Don’t use a difficult situation to profit off your fellow residents.”

This article first appeared in the Idaho Statesman. It is used here with permission.