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Commerce officials say they’ll actively investigate price gouging claims… even if they’re based on jokes

(Credit: Maddas, Shutterstock)

SALT LAKE CITY – State commerce officials say they have absolutely no sense of humor when it comes to price gouging during the COVID-19 outbreak.  They’re seeing an uptick in complaints about price gouging, even though many of these prices aren’t real.

Officials from the Department of Commerce say retailers aren’t the problem, lately, although, they’re still investigating claims some store managers jacked up prices on things like water and vegetables when news of the coronavirus in Utah first broke.  Department Spokesman Brian Maxwell says the most recent problem they’re seeing involves social media posts on platforms like virtual yard sales.

Maxwell says, “[These are] consumer-to-consumer sales where people have bought toilet paper or hand sanitizer or paper towels and they attempt to sell those at exorbitant prices, online.”

For example, Maxwell says there are people posting that they have small bottles of hand sanitizer that they’ll sell for $75.  But, are these posts even real?

“Some of these things have turned out to be jokes.  Well-intentioned but ill-timed,” he says.

The department is required to look into price gouging claims, and Maxwell says they will aggressively do that.  So, they’ll look into complaints even if the person making the post is only kidding. Maxwell says now may not be the best time to make these jokes, since not everyone can tell when people are being sarcastic online.

“What happens, though, is that it creates an environment of suspicion,” he says.  “In order for commerce to flow freely, we need people to have confidence in the free flow of commerce.”

In one case, investigators looked into claims of a fast food restaurant placing rolls of toilet paper in the window, claiming they were on sale for $20 each.  In another, someone posted they were selling cases of toilet paper for $100 to $200.  Both of these were done in jest.