Which? has developed a simple tool for people to report coronavirus profiteering amid concerns that price-gougers are getting away with hiking the prices of essential items.
The consumer champion has uncovered widespread problems with basic products being sold for hugely inflated prices on online marketplaces such as Amazon Marketplace and eBay – and there are concerns that similar behaviour could be happening on other sites and in shops up and down the country.
These practices may have left key workers and charities struggling to get essential products they need or forced to pay extortionate prices.
Which? spoke to a charity that helps provide hundreds of meals to elderly and vulnerable people – demand for this vital service has gone up since the Covid-19 crisis. However the price of essential items to keep its employees and vulnerable clients safe, such as antibacterial probe wipes, which the charity has only been able to buy in the high quantities they need from eBay, has more than doubled since the crisis.
The Competition and Markets Authority has set up a dedicated Covid-19 taskforce, and reports shared using the tool will help the regulator to establish the scale of the problem and take action against the worst offenders. Which? is also calling for emergency legislation to give regulators the tools to swiftly crack down on price-gouging on certain essential products during this crisis, and any future ones.
The CMA and Chartered Trading Standards Institute have both raised serious concerns about problems with price-gouging and the Prime Minister has also warned traders against “exploiting people’s need” during a national emergency.
Which? has heard reports from hundreds of consumers that unscrupulous sellers have been taking advantage of the situation and its investigations have uncovered huge price hikes on products such as handwash, cleaning products and baby formula.
Which? experts have found Dettol bleach and cleaning sprays being sold by third-party sellers with price hikes of almost 1000 per cent more than the typical price on eBay with evidence of dozens of purchases being made at these prices.
Researchers also encountered sterilising fluid for baby bottles for more than 10 times the original price by a seller on Amazon and a bundle of one handwash and one antibacterial gel for £30 on eBay, instead of the £3.50 it would usually cost.
Some shoppers have felt pressured into buying these overpriced products because of a lack of alternative options available, including older and more vulnerable people who need access to vital hygiene products such as hand sanitiser.
One told Which?: “I’m disabled and struggle to leave my home, but the current crisis is forcing me to go out and struggle to get essentials when I normally get as much online as I can.
“My trust in buying from online marketplaces has been shattered, some items are fine if I find it at a reasonable price, but others I can’t trust as they’re either gouged, possibly diluted and therefore useless, or it’s a scam listing and the item never existed to begin with.”
Another said: “I paid £19.80 plus £5.25 for post and packaging for 2 x 250ml of hand sanitiser from a seller on eBay. Outrageous price but we are a captive audience and it was the cheapest I could find. Someone is getting very rich from this pandemic.”
Which? has also heard numerous reports of price-gouging at bricks and mortar retailers including pharmacies.
Which? is calling for the government to introduce specific legislation to stop unjustifiable price hikes of essential items during times of emergency, as well as requiring online marketplaces to ensure compliance on their sites or face enforcement action.
New legislation would also give the UK a head start in tackling price-gouging during any future emergencies. The absence of legislation has made it harder to take action on this issue swiftly and left the UK trailing behind other countries that already have laws to combat price-gouging during crises.
In the meantime, Which? believes online marketplaces need to bring in stricter, more effective controls and policies to tackle price gouging, and is encouraging the CMA to take strong enforcement action using its existing powers where appropriate.
Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection at Which?, said:
“It is unacceptable for people to be left at the mercy of unscrupulous sellers during a national emergency. We’re calling for people to report opportunistic coronavirus profiteers via our tool so that we can press home the need for swift action and put an end to price-gouging on basic goods.
“The government, working with the CMA, needs to step in with emergency legislation to crack down on price-gouging and keep the price of essential items reasonable during a crisis.”
Link for consumers to submit reports to Which?’s price-gouging tool: https://www.which.co.uk/pricegouging
Notes to editors
Which? advice guide on price gouging: https://www.which.co.uk/pricegouging
Which? is a non-profit organisation working to make life simpler, fairer and safer for consumers. During the coronavirus crisis, Which? is making a range of news, advice and guides available for free for anyone who needs it at: https://www.which.co.uk/news/coronavirus/
Previous press releases:
- Which? searched for essential household items on Amazon Marketplace and eBay between 16 and 19 March and between 3 and 6 April 2020.
Rights of reply
An eBay spokesperson said:
“For months, we’ve been working to prevent people trying to use eBay to profiteer from the current situation. At every stage we’ve reacted quickly – increasing the size of our enforcement teams, and introducing global restrictions on masks, hand sanitisers, nappies, baby formula and feminine hygiene products. So far, our filters have blocked over 11 million attempts at price gouging, removed over 800,000 listings, and suspended thousands of accounts.”
“Over a month ago, we created a price gouging reporting function that accompanies every listing, and we encourage people to report instances of unreasonably priced items.”
Amazon (This was shared in response to Which?’s investigation on 10 April 2020):
“There is no place for price gouging on Amazon. We are disappointed that bad actors are attempting to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis and, in line with our long-standing policy, have recently blocked or removed hundreds of thousands of offers. We continue to actively monitor our store and remove offers that violate our policies.”