S.C. investigating nearly 100 price gouging complaints during COVID-19 state of emergency

VIDEO: S.C. investigating nearly 100 price gouging complaints during COVID-19 state of emergency

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office says it is investigating 98 possible cases of price gouging received as of Wednesday.

The majority of products at the center of the complaints are toilet paper and sanitizers, according to South Carolina Attorney General’s Office spokesman Robert Kittle.

“We’re continuing to go through phone messages, some of which are duplicates from people who reported it online and then left a phone message about the same thing, and we get a few more every day so it’s a moving target,” Kittle said in an email.

Here’s the breakdown by type and number of reports:

  • Toilet Paper: 35
  • Sanitizer (Lysol, bleach, hand sanitizer, wipes): 27
  • Food: 8
  • Gasoline: 7
  • Medicine (OTC & prescription): 4
  • Water: 4
  • Paper towels: 3
  • Other: 6 (one each: scan thermometer, daycare charging extra per day per child, storage price went up, liquor store, face masks, Covid-19 test)
  • Unknown: 4 (general comments without specifics, like “Store X tripled their prices.”)

Kittle says the office goes through the complaints and some are dismissed as clearly not price gouging.

“That could be something that is higher in price but is not an ‘unconscionable’ increase,” he said. "One complaint was someone upset that one gas station was charging $1.80-something per gallon for gas while another station across the street was charging $1.70-something per gallon. That’s not price gouging."

If something warrants further investigation, the Attorney General’s Office will turn it over to area law enforcement, which will then investigate and report their findings.

“One example is a store in Columbia that was charging $90 for a one-liter bottle of hand sanitizer,” Kittle said. He did not identify the store.

He also said 37 of the 98 complaints involved online sales involving products sold on Amazon, Facebook Marketplace, eBay and Craigslist.

President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency and Gov. Henry McMaster’s declaration of a state of emergency, which both happened on March 13, placed South Carolina’s law against price gouging in effect. Either declaration alone would have done so.

How to report suspected price gouging

It’s important to keep in mind that normal changes in the prices of goods and services are not considered price gouging by law. Normal fluctuations in the market based on supply and demand are also not price gouging, the attorney general’s website states.

“We can expect normal price increases, but we may see businesses and individuals looking to unfairly take advantage of the situation through price gouging of things like hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and other commodities as defined by the statute. By our law, that’s a criminal violation and an unfair trade practice,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said. “We wish to emphasize, as we have seen in the past, that price gouging under the current law is difficult to prove, even substantial price increases. What might seem large to the public may not be illegal in court.”

If you feel like you are the victim of price gouging there are certain steps that you can take to help the office investigate. Please do the following:

  • Note the time, place, address, and name of the business
  • Note the price you paid
  • Note any prices nearby and get the same information on those businesses
  • Take pictures that identify the business, along with the price
  • Provide your name and contact information

The attorney general’s office will need that information in order to conduct a thorough investigation.

Consumers can email any examples or documentation to pricegouging@scag.gov or call 803-737-3953 and leave a message if you have witnessed a likely violation.

Anyone found to have violated the state’s price gouging law is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, must be punished by a fine of up to $1,000, up to 30 days in jail, or both.

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