CHARLESTON – West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office has received more than 125 complaints of price gouging related to the Coronavirus pandemic.
When Gov. Jim Justice issued a state of preparedness March 4, the state’s price gouging law went into effect. Morrisey’s office handles complaints related to those laws.
Curtis Johnson, Morrisey’s press secretary, said the office had received 129 reports as of March 24. Those include calls, emails and written complaints.
“Most are for toilet paper, bottled water and cleaning supplies among a mix of other items,” Johnson told The West Virginia Record. “Our office has sent multiple letters to businesses whose conduct may have violated the state’s price-gouging law.”
Johnson said specifics about the letters can’t be provided yet because of the investigations are ongoing.
Morrisey has asked consumers to be smart and vigilant as they conduct business during the pandemic.
“The coronavirus pandemic presents a challenge like none other,” Morrisey said during a March 16 press conference. “COVID-19 has seemingly affected every aspect of life from the average trip to buy groceries, dine out and attend concerts or sporting events to one’s dream vacation planned months, if not years, in advance.
“Furthermore, the impact is still evolving, yet the need for consumers to be vigilant and take common-sense steps to protect their financial wellbeing is constant.”
The state’s price gouging law makes it unlawful for any person, business or contractor to inflate the price of food items, essential consumer items and emergency supplies by more than 10 percent of what the items sold for 10 days prior to the declaration.
The price gouging law takes effect during any state of emergency or state of preparedness as issued by West Virginia’s governor. Such laws remain in effect until the declaration is lifted or 30 days, whichever is longer, subject to limited exceptions.
“Let me be clear about one point,” Morrisey said. “We have price-gouging authority in this office, and I intend to make sure that law is enforced.”
Morrisey said any consumer who believes he or she may have been charged prices that increased dramatically after the March 4 declaration should file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division. Those with a receipt should attach a copy to their complaint.
Morrisey also has tried to assure consumers that empty store shelves and shortages of items such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer are temporary.
“We want to be able to quiet people’s fears about this,” Morrisey said. “We have heard that in most instances, there is the ability to obtain food and other basic supplies. As we’ve all heard, there are shortages on toilet paper and hand sanitizer and limits on bottled water. But by and large, the supply chain in West Virginia and the country is sound.
“If you see empty shelves, realize this is a temporary situation. We know this is a problem and a real inconvenience. We also know that during this time, most people are trying to do the right thing. But there always are going to be a few bad apples.”
Morrisey also touched on travel and event cancellations, noting that most companies are loosening cancellation policies now. But he said his office is ready to help with obtaining refunds if consumers have problems doing so themselves.
He also cautioned consumers to be on the lookout for scams in the wake of the pandemic, including websites set up to sell bogus products or sham charities.
He said the AG’s office also is preparing by preparing a list of essential employees and being ready to react as needed.
“We urge people to take the preparations outlined,” Morrisey said. “And remain calm.”
On March 24, Morrisey also urged people to stop stealing and hoarding masks and other personal protective equipment that are crucial needs within hospitals.
“Nurses and physicians are right to be very concerned about their safety and the safety of those all around them due to the short supply of masks and other personal protective equipment,” Morrisey said. “At this time of crisis, the hoarding or theft of such equipment is beyond immoral. People’s lives are at stake.
“Let’s be clear: The state will crack down hard on thieves who put our health care workers at risk.”
Any consumer wishing to ask questions or file a complaint are asked to contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-368-8808 or visit the office online at www.wvago.gov.