Unfortunately, price gouging reappears regularly with natural disasters, including earthquakes, wildfires, and hurricanes. As citizens try to prepare for or respond to a disaster, they can be subject to skyrocketing prices for gas, food and water. As deplorable as this is, profiteering at the expense of health care workers — the front-line defenders against COVID-19—is much worse.
Most Alaskans could not imagine taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic by buying and stockpiling critical protective equipment like N95 respirator masks to resell at unconscionable prices on internet platforms like Amazon or eBay. The worst circumstances often bring out the best in us. Alaskans consistently step up and help those in need during times of emergency and disaster. Taking advantage of a global pandemic to turn a profit is simply not the Alaskan way.
Can anyone imagine the 20 heroic mushers who raced the antitoxin “serum” to Nome in the midst of the 1925 diphtheria outbreak deciding to profit by charging exorbitant prices for the use of their sleds and dogs? No, of course not. Everyone agrees that type of profiteering would have been reprehensible and possibly criminal. Those famous Alaska mushers and their dogs, the most famous of which are Togo and Balto, responded heroically and earned national recognition and praise.
Unfortunately, greed sometimes overtakes common sense and human decency.
It is one thing to buy and hoard toilet paper out of fear for personal use at home. (Though I must admit, for the life of me, I cannot comprehend the fixation with wanting mountains of toilet paper.) But it is quite another thing altogether to rush to multiple stores across the community to buy the entire available supply of emergency equipment that is crucial to the safety of health care workers and other Alaskans for the selfish purpose of flipping them for a huge profit. These actions can only be classified as preying on people in a vulnerable time, and it is unlawful and immoral.
Earlier this month, Amazon voluntarily compiled and reported to each state’s attorney general sales activity that appeared to represent price gouging of COVID-19-related items in each state. I would like to thank Amazon for its good citizenship in this regard. Amazon has removed more than a million products from its platform in recent weeks in an effort to stop profiteering from the coronavirus outbreak.
Based upon Amazon’s report, I directed the Department of Law to investigate possible COVID-19-related price gouging and profiteering occurring in Alaska and to pursue complaints against identified wrongdoers. As a result, we have filed a lawsuit against an Anchorage resident who purchased thousands of respirators from Alaska retail stores and resold them online for as much as four times his purchase price. Alaska’s law prohibits this type of activity.
The Alaska Unfair Trade Practices Act, also referred to as the Alaska Consumer Protection Act, makes it unlawful to engage in unfair acts or practices in the conduct of trade or commerce and gives the attorney general the authority to enforce it through court action. In that action, the attorney general can seek an order preventing the person from continuing to violate the law, and to make whole anyone wronged by the unlawful practices. The Act also provides for civil penalties against the wrongdoer of not less than $1,000 and not more than $25,000 for each violation, and allows the state to recover its costs and attorney’s fees. We are seeking all of these remedies in our recently filed case.
I will not tolerate this type of behavior. Under my direction, the Department of Law will not hesitate to bring actions against other unscrupulous individuals trying to take advantage of other Alaskans in their time of need and profiteering off of COVID-19-related products and equipment.
I trust that most all Alaskans will step up and help to preserve needed health protection equipment for those who need it most. And, I am confident most all Alaskans would never dream of profiteering on the COVID-19 pandemic. Please do not hesitate to report price gouging to the Department of Law.
Kevin Clarkson is the attorney general of Alaska.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.