Amazon wants national price-gouging law after coronavirus complaints surge

Proposal calls for FTC to pursue 'scammers'

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Amazon is calling for federal lawmakers to create a national anti-price-gouging law as the online retailer has sought to block the practice on its platform.

The spread of the coronavirus has been followed by “a nationwide surge in complaints about price gouging,” Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, wrote in a blog post.

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Many states have price-gouging laws on the books, but the definitions vary. About a dozen states have no law prohibiting price gouging at all, though some state legislatures have introduced bills.

However, a new federal law could give the Federal Trade Commission the authority to go after all the “scammers” who have drastically raised prices on essential goods in the face of the pandemic, according to Huseman, who previously worked as a consumer protection attorney at the FTC. That would ensure there are no gaps in consumer protection and put price gougers on notice.

A sign on a shelf at a QFC grocery store in Kirkland, Wash., advises shoppers Tuesday, March 3, 2020 that all hand sanitizer products are sold out. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

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The early days of the pandemic in the U.S. saw a surge of complaints about gougers inappropriately raising prices for sought-after items like masks, hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

Amazon has been working with state attorneys general in the meantime, Huseman wrote. The company has also suspended close to 4,000 sellers in the U.S. for violating its fair-pricing policies and is continuing to use automated technology to pull unreasonably priced items. Amazon has also set a team to identify and investigate inflated prices on sought-after items.

An Amazon Prime truck passes by the sign outisde an Amazon fulfillment center, Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Staten Island, New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

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Under Huseman’s proposal, the theoretical federal price-gouging law would “kick in immediately” when the government declares a public health crisis or national emergency. However, any law should also account for business costs that can rise during an emergency, he added.

“Put simply, we want to avoid the $400 bottle of Purell for sale right after an emergency goes into effect, while not punishing unavoidable price increases that emergencies can cause, especially as supply chains are disrupted,” Huseman wrote.

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