Watchdog accuses Amazon of price gouging during the pandemic

The cost of disposable face masks increased 900 percent.

Kevin Mohatt / reuters

A new report by the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen accuses Amazon of price gouging during the pandemic. According to the group, Amazon increased the prices of essential items like masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray, paper towels and toilet paper.

According to the report, the cost of a 50-pack of disposable face masks jumped from about $4 on April 1st to $39.99 on August 16th. That’s a 900 percent increase. Toilet paper sold by other retailers for $6.89 sold on Amazon for nearly $37, Public Citizen says. In August, the cost of disinfectant spray reportedly increased from about $7 to $13, a jump of more than 80 percent. Even the prices of flour, sugar and cornstarch varied widely.

While Amazon has spoken out repeatedly against price gouging, much of its focus has been on third-party sellers. Amazon says it has removed more than one million listings and suspended more than 10,000 accounts for suspected price gouging. But the report released this week provides several examples of products labeled “sold by Amazon” that saw drastic price increases.

In a statement provided to Engadget, an Amazon spokesperson said:

As we have said, there is no place for price gouging on Amazon and that includes products offered directly by Amazon. Our systems are designed to meet or beat the best available price amongst our competitors and if we see an error, we work quickly to fix it. Our teams continue to monitor our store 24/7 and have already removed over a million offers. Our customers expect to find low prices in our store, and we work hard to provide the best available price across the hundreds of millions of products in our store for all customers, every day.

In March, Amazon and the Department of Justice asked consumers to report instances of price gouging, but by May some sellers found a way to use the “collectible” label to dodge price gouging rules. Last month, Germany opened an investigation into whether Amazon influenced prices during the pandemic.

As Public Citizen points out, there are no federal price gouging laws in the US, but the DoJ previously said any companies that fix prices or rig bids for PPE such as gloves or masks could be prosecuted under antitrust laws. As you may know, Amazon is already facing pressure over potential antitrust abuses.