Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and the Division of Consumer Affairs aren’t playing around with price gouging retailers: the Division has sent more than 80 cease and desist and warning letters to businesses that have been accused of the practice, related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
They’re taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to abuses, Grewal said in a statement.
“As public concern grows, we have made it our top priority to use the Division’s resources to address emerging issues to protect consumers,” said DCA Acting Director Paul Rodríguez. “Whether it’s protecting consumers from merchants who seek to prey on them financially or providing information and guidance to the licensed professionals they rely on for health care, we’re looking out for them.”
A total of 619 complaints related to alleged COVID-19 price gouging or other consumer protection violations were logged as of 2:00 p.m. on March 17.
That’s nearly double the 270 complaints that had been logged by March 12, nearly all of which had been received since March 4.
Allegations include retailers unfairly raising prices on surgical masks, hand sanitizers, disinfectant sprays and wipes, food, bottled water, and other items, which are purchased by coronavirus-concerned consumers.
Some businesses have generated multiple complaints and some complaints have not included enough information to identify the business at issue, according to an OAG announcement.
In addition to the approximately 82 cease-and-desist or warning letters, DCA has completed at least 159 inspections and issued 13 subpoenas for additional information.
The Division is investigating both potential violations of the Consumer Fraud Act and potential price gouging.
New Jersey’s price gouging law, triggered by the state of emergency, prohibits excessive price increases during a declared state of emergency and for 30 days after its termination. If a new price is more than 10 percent higher than the price charged during the normal course of business, it is considered excessive; and price gouging violations are punishable by civil penalties of up to $10,000 for the first violation and $20,000 for violations thereafter. Violators may also be required to pay consumer restitution, attorney’s fees, and investigative fees, and be subject to injunctive relief.
A separate violation is applied to each sale.
Concerned about other scams that may arise during the COVID-19 pandemic, a notice from the OAG and DCA notifies consumers of the following:
- Representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not going door-to-door seeking information, so don’t fall for CDC imposters and let them into your home.
- Beware of in-store or online advertisements for products that claim to cure or prevent COVID-19, as no cure or preventative medicine has been approved.
- Beware of cybercriminals that try to convince email recipients to open links or attachments that may deliver malware.
- Beware of factual inaccuracies on the internet related to information about COVID-19, and rely only on trusted sources for information.
- Be wary of unsolicited calls offering health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid benefits supplements, or a cure for COVID-19. Do not share your personal information over the phone to unsolicited callers.
- Avoid adoption scams from scammers claiming to be CDC employees and asking people to send money overseas to adopt pets being held under quarantine. The CDC, which does not quarantine pets, would not ask for payment to bring an animal into the country.
The DCA set up a special voicemail box to address COVID-19 related price gouging complaints which will be checked regularly, even outside of normal business hours. Consumers should call (973) 504-6240 and leave their name, contact information, nature of the complaint, and the name and location of the business. Consumers should also note the price of a good or service, as well as the price prior to the state of emergency, if known.