Yolo County DA cracks down on stores illegally price-gouging during pandemic

Yolo County DA cracks down on stores illegally price-gouging during pandemic

Photo Credits: KAITLYN PANG / AGGIE

Citizens who experience price-gouging are encouraged to report it 

The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office is increasing its investigation and prosecution of sellers who raise prices more than 10% of a product’s original value in an effort to make necessary supplies affordable during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Local attorneys are operating based on laws that only go into effect during a state or local emergency, preventing the dramatic increases in prices of goods and services — an act called price-gouging.

In a statement published on March 20, the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office explained price-gouging and asked Yolo County citizens to speak up if they notice any dramatic price increases. 

“District Attorney [Jeff] Reisig also encouraged Yolo County residents to report any instances of price-gouging when shopping for consumer goods or medical supplies,” the statement read. 

Reisig added that businesses should not be allowed to profit off of local residents who are fearing for their health.

“Local businesses have traditionally been community partners during crises, but anyone that profiteers during a state of emergency will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Reisig said in the press release. “County residents must have access to necessary supplies, especially when community health is at stake.” 

Anti-price-gouging laws prohibit raising the prices of hotel lodging, food and drink, emergency supplies and medical supplies, according to the California Attorney General’s Office. Other goods can include, “building materials, including lumber, construction tools, and windows; transportation; freight; storage services; gasoline and other motor fuels; and repair and reconstruction services.” 

The laws can even protect against an increase in rent prices. Landlords may not raise the price of rent by more than 10% of the original value, or rent a new listing at more than 160% of the fair market value of the rental housing. Some can even be charged with a misdemeanor if they, “evict a tenant and then re-rent the property at a rate that the landlord would have been prohibited from charging the evicted tenant under the price gouging statute,” according to the California Attorney General’s Office. 

Deputy District Attorney Rachel Hilzinger explained that not every price increase is illegal under anti-price-gouging laws, though most increases that surpass the 10% threshold are not legal.

“There are some exemptions when a wholesaler or retailer is going to be able to mark up the price of an item,” Hilzinger said. “For instance, if the item was on final sale before the state of emergency was declared and they want to return it to the normal retail price — that doesn’t count.”

Those caught guilty of price-gouging could face hefty punishments, according to the press release. 

“Violations of the price-gouging statute are subject to criminal prosecution that can result in one-year imprisonment in county jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000,” the statement read.

The seller could also face civil charges and be forced to pay restitution to the buyers that faced increased prices, according to Hilzinger, though that would not provide restitution for those who were unable to afford the necessary goods during the price-gouging.

“Our office, particularly our consumer division, will take cases civilly as well,” Hilzinger said. “We could go after a retail, a business — someone who’s price-gouging — and we could pursue them civilly, and they could pay a penalty of up to $2,500 per violation per day.”

Price-gouging is not limited to only in-person purchases either. Online sellers can face charges if they sell products to Californians during the State of Emergency, Hilzinger explained. 

“The Attorney General’s office has been looking into online retailers,” Hilzinger said. “They’ve already been issuing price-gouging notices to the major online retailers like Amazon, Craigslist, Ebay, even Facebook Marketplace.”

In a series of recent press releases, the California Attorney General’s Office described the increase in price-gouging on online marketplaces and the alarming lack of regulation from the platforms enabling the price-gouging. 

“Many platforms are currently, or were until recently, flooded with potentially illegal postings by third-party sellers for products listed at highly inflated prices,” the statement read.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra also provided guidance for companies to regulate third-party sellers. He encouraged platforms to “supplement algorithmic management of postings on their website with meaningful human review” and “ban sales by new third-party sellers of certain items that are particularly ripe for price gouging abuse, such as surgical masks, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, certain household goods, and paper products.”

Written by: Madeleine Payne — city@theaggie.org