Coronavirus: Consumer group warns of rip-off prices for essentials

A consumer group is urging online shoppers to be vigilant, accusing third-party sellers on platforms such as Amazon and eBay of exploiting the coronavirus crisis.

Which? said it had found thousands of examples of premium hygiene items, such as toilet roll and cleaning products, still being sold on online marketplaces at more than double the amount charged by supermarkets.

In the worst case one third-party seller, it said, was demanding up to 12 times the average retail price for anti-bacterial gel.

Dettol antiseptic disinfectant

Third-party sellers, Which? said, were seeking rip-off rates for hygiene products from top brands including Dettol and Carex

The start of the COVID-19 outbreak saw a rush for household staples, with stockpiling leading to shortages nationwide ahead of the 23 March lockdown being implemented.

Which? said it was clear sellers were still able to exploit the crisis, despite promises of tough action from regulators.

It said it was aware that Amazon and eBay were taking action against so-called price-gougers – through blocking and removing large quantities of listings or offers and suspending accounts of rogue third-party sellers.

The group urged consumers to alert the platforms to those who were clearly exploiting the pandemic.

Its findings included Carex hand wash and hand sanitiser products on Amazon Marketplace being sold at up to ten times the price expected.

It was the same story for Dettol goods on eBay.

Which? quoted one 59-year old woman said to have a chronic lung condition who reported a seller on Amazon Marketplace flogging a 1 litre of Dettol cleaning spray for £29.99.

She told Which?: “It’s disgusting. I have had to use these products for years now for hygiene reasons for managing serious health conditions and the current shortages mean I have to try to look elsewhere if not available for my Tesco delivery, but I cannot afford to pay the prices.”

Ebay responded: “eBay gives people a great way to access the items they need – especially during lockdown – and we invest heavily in measures to ensure they can do so safely.

“While a small minority of unscrupulous sellers do attempt to take advantage of other users, effective safeguards have been in place for weeks to prevent this.”

More workers are now returning to work

Some furloughed workers are still working

Amazon said: “There is no place for price gouging on Amazon.

“When a bad actor attempts to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis, it’s bad for customers and the hundreds of thousands of honest businesses selling in our store.

“In line with our long-standing policy, we have recently blocked or removed hundreds of thousands of offers and pursued legal action against bad actors.”

Sue Davies, head of consumer protection at Which?, said: “It cannot be right that potentially thousands of people have paid unjustifiably high prices to buy essential items during this COVID-19 crisis.

“While welcome, it’s clear that measures being put in place by online marketplaces are not enough to stop coronavirus profiteering by those seeking to exploit the current situation.

“The government, working with the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority), needs to step in with emergency legislation to enable swift action to crack down on price-gouging and keep the price of essential items reasonable during crises both now and in the future.”

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