By Summer Stephan
With everything from school, sporting events and concerts being canceled and many stores and offices closed, there is not a person left who has not been affected by COVID-19. Unfortunately, in a moment of desperation like this one, scammers only see opportunity.
During disasters, bad actors make money by preying on fear and anxiety. They increase prices on essential items or find other ways to bilk residents, such as peddling fake cures or offering phony services. Consumers should know that it is against the law to increase prices on essential items such as water, batteries or cleaning supplies, by more than 10%, unless the business can prove that its own costs have gone up.
During a state of emergency, which was declared across the state by Governor Gavin Newsom on March 4 and by the County Board of Supervisors on February 19, violations of the price gouging statute are subject to criminal prosecution that can result in one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000. Violations are also subject to civil enforcement actions that include civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation.
Here is a list include items for which price gouging can be penalized:
- Emergency supplies such as flashlights, radios, batteries, and candles
- Medical supplies including prescription medication and hand sanitizer
- Animal food
It’s also against the law for a hotel or motel to increase room prices by more than 10% during an emergency and for 30 days afterward.
Scamming is not just limited to price gouging. Some go as far as setting up fake websites, sending phony email solicitations or posting on social media pretending to be known organizations, such as the World Health Organization, in order to swindle folks from their money. Anyone advertising a cure for the coronavirus or COVID-19 is a fraud. There is no vaccine or cure at this time.
If you see anyone engaging in the activities mentioned in this column, do not engage. Instead, report them to authorities. Although most people and companies are looking to help others in this time of need, there is always a small group looking to scam the vulnerable.
As your District Attorney, I want you to know that we stand ready to protect consumer rights under the law and we will strictly enforce violations related to price gouging or financial fraud. During this time of need, we must stand together and help one another.
You can report suspected price gouging to the District Attorney’s Consumer Protection Unit at 619-531-3507 or to the California Attorney General’s Office.
Please know that the District Attorney’s team is prepared to safeguard public safety and we are operating in a manner that is healthy for our employees. We ask that the public follow all county health orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Finally, we wish everyone health.
— District Attorney Summer Stephan has dedicated more than 29 years to serving justice and victims of crime as prosecutor. She is a national leader in fighting sex crimes and human trafficking and in creating smart and fair criminal justice solutions and restorative justice practices that treat the underlying causes of addiction and mental illness and that keep young people from being incarcerated.