Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has sent “cease and desist” letters to five Washington businesses, ordering them to stop selling protective masks, hand sanitizer and similar items at vastly inflated prices through Amazon.com, or face lawsuits and fines.
The crackdown comes as Ferguson’s office says it has received more than 300 consumer complaints of coronavirus-related price gouging by businesses across the state, from online and brick-and-mortar retailers, to gas stations and pharmacies.
Earlier this month, the Bellevue-based online marketplace OfferUp announced it would block further sales of items such as sanitizer, toilet paper and masks, after complaints of rampant price gouging and pressure from attorneys general in Washington and California.
The five businesses targeted in the letters announced Tuesday were warned if they don’t halt their practices, the Attorney General’s Office may file lawsuits and seek fines of up to $2,000 per violation under the state’s Consumer Protection Act.
One of the letter recipients, Devon Mahdi, an independent seller in Spokane, raised the price of an 8-ounce bottle of sanitizer on Amazon from $3.50 in January to more than $25, an increase of more than 600%, according to the Attorney General’s Office, which said some buyers may have paid as much as $40. Mahdi also sold N95 masks and disinfectant wipes through his online storefront “at excessive prices during the public health emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the cease-and-desist letter said.
Mahdi owns a company called Economical Success LLC, according to state business filings, and has advertised himself online as earning “a full time 6 figure income on Amazon.” He did not respond Tuesday to a phone call, text and email from The Seattle Times sent to his listed contacts on file with the state.
Seattle-based Western Safety Products is accused by Ferguson’s office of selling 3M and Moldex-Metric N95 masks through its Amazon storefront at excessive prices. The company’s preemergency pricing ranged from $11.21 to $17.40, and jumped to between $44.52 and $54.94 after the virus outbreak. Ferguson’s letter to the company said his office “will hold sellers accountable for price gouging” during the coronavirus pandemic.
The company’s owners did not respond to a phone message and email seeking comment. Brianna Aho, a spokeswoman for Ferguson’s office, said in an email the company has sought to make refunds to customers affected by the pricing.
Other sellers in Issaquah, Mill Creek and Gig Harbor also received warning letters.
“These businesses are charging exorbitant prices on products that are essential for the health and well-being of Washingtonians. We will use all of the tools at our disposal to prevent price gouging during this public health emergency,” Ferguson said in a statement Tuesday.
Amazon says it does not condone or tolerate price gouging and has worked with attorneys general across the country to fight price gouging and removes independent sellers on its platform who violate its policies.
“We are disappointed that bad actors are attempting to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis and, in line with our long-standing policy, have recently blocked or removed hundreds of thousands of offers. We continue to actively monitor our store and remove offers that violate our policies,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
The Attorney General’s Office is continuing to investigate reports of price gouging and asks members of the public to submit complaints through the office’s website: www.atg.wa.gov/file-complaint.