Attorney General Keith Ellison said his office received more than 500 complaints about price gouging in Minnesota last week alone.
The influx of complaints is part of Ellison’s effort to stop companies from hiking their prices on essential products during the coronavirus pandemic. Doing so is now illegal under an executive order issued by Gov. Tim Walz, which will remain in effect for the duration of Minnesota’s peacetime emergency.
The state’s Attorney General announced a statewide crackdown on businesses engaged in “pandemic profiteering” last week and encouraged Minnesotans to report instances of price gouging to his office.
“I will do everything in my power to help ensure Minnesotans can afford their lives and are protected from pandemic profiteering by people who are trying to line their pockets during this crisis at Minnesotans’ expense,” Ellison said in a statement. “We need Minnesotans’ help with this mission, too. I strongly urge anyone who sees any price gouging on essential goods in their community to report it to my office immediately. We’ll get right on it.”
The “enforcement staff” at the Attorney General’s Office has made more than 70 visits to retail stores across the state to survey prices and investigate complaints of price gouging, Ellison said. In one case, his office conducted a “secret shopper” investigation of Downtown Smoke Shop and discovered that it was selling toilet paper at prices of $4.99 for two rolls and $79.99 for a pack of 36 rolls.
His office entered into an “assurance of discountenance” agreement with the company, and a violation of the agreement would come with a $30,000 fine.
In another case, Ellison sent a warning letter to Menards after receiving complaints that it was selling cleaning supplies at a 55 percent markup.
Ellison has also put major online retailers on notice, warning Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, Walmart, and Facebook in a letter sent Friday that they are not exempt from the legal restrictions on price gouging.
“Now more than ever, my job is to help Minnesotans afford their lives — but pandemic profiteering, including online, is making that harder. The major online retailers have a responsibility to put an end to it,” said Ellison. “The vast majority of retailers who are selling essential items are doing the right thing by Minnesotans right now – and their workers are our heroes. But if you’re profiteering off the pandemic, my office and I are coming after you.”
The letter asks the online retailers to enforce restrictions on “unconscionable” price gouging during emergencies, trigger price gouging protections before an emergency is declared, and create an online portal for consumers to report instances of price gouging.
Ellison said his office is looking into every complaint it receives and said Friday that it had ordered a business in Little Canada to stop selling N95 respirator masks at a $5 price, refund all customers who purchased a mask, and donate its remaining masks to the state.
Minnesota is one of a handful of states that doesn’t have a permanent ban on price gouging, according to Ellison.
“Some may think they’re trying to help and may not know they’re engaging in pandemic profiteering. But not knowing doesn’t make it okay, and we will still enforce the price gouging ban,” Ellison added. “I’m calling on Minnesotans everywhere to report to my office any price gouging on essential items they see. We’ve had almost 500 complaints in the first week, and we’re looking into every one.”
Watch his statement:
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