By Eric Heinz, City News Service, Los Angeles Sentinel
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer and District Attorney Jackie Lacey today announced the formation of a task force aimed at protecting people from price gouging and false claims on products sold during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
Price gouging during this time is defined as raising the cost of goods more than 10% during a state of emergency.
“As we know, there is tremendous fear and anxiety about the coronavirus, and it’s making Angelenos vulnerable,” Feuer said. “Our offices are here to protect the public from being taken advantage of.”
The city attorney said the task force has scoured the internet to look for any significant increases in prices. He said the task force bought on Amazon a half-gallon of bleach listed for $100, as well as a pair of one-liter bottles of hand sanitizer for $149, well above their market prices.
`Those goods have yet to arrive. We anticipate receiving them in the next day or so,” Feuer said. “The mere posting of … an exaggerated amount fuels panic, and that panic will lead to a lack of necessities at stores when people really need necessities.”
The city attorney said he will take legal action against the online sellers if they can identify them as well as out-of-state criminals, and his office has contacted Amazon about the issues.
Criminal penalties for price gouging can lead to up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.
“We have other claims under investigation right now, and we are prepared to take further action,” Feuer said.
Feuer said his office has already identified some companies that have made questionable claims, such as a company that advertised that its Vitamin C products could prevent or reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, as well as
“The Jim Bakker Show,” which recently featured people peddling silver tonics they claimed could prevent people from getting the virus. Both claims have either been debunked or are unproven, Feuer said.
Feuer said his office gives companies five days to either provide evidence of the claims or remove any content related to the questionable claims from their broadcast and websites. He also said that people should be skeptical of companies that say certain masks can further reduce risk to the virus.
Lacey said her office has been releasing “Fraud Friday” alerts to let people know of recent scams, and said her office would prosecute anyone involved in text, email, social media or any other kind of scam advertising.
“This week, we’ve really seen a heightened fear,” Lacey said. “It’s important to remember that there are no approved vaccines, drugs or supplements of any type currently available to treat and prevent the coronavirus. Consumers who fall prey to these scams put themselves and those around them in danger with the false confidence that comes with using these so- called cures.”
Lacey said people should also check the validity of organizations claiming to collect money for coronavirus patients through an independent source or the Better Business Bureau.
She said people should save their receipts of products that they bought which are believed to be fraudulent or overpriced and give them to the District Attorney’s Office.
People who believe they’ve been victims of price gouging or false claims can visit the city attorney’s website at lacityattorney.org or call 213-978-8340, or call the district attorney’s consumer protection division hotline at 213-257-2450.
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