An Interview With a Pandemic Price Gouger

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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION VIA DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • PHOTO ILLUSTRATION VIA DANNY WICENTOWSKI

America's most hateable villain might be the pandemic price gouger. They are the creatures who bought up ever last roll of TP, the economic villains who add zeros to every price tag. Last week, searching "masks" on the St. Louis-area Craigslist yielded numerous options for anyone willing to pay more than $100 on protective gear that usually runs $15 to $20.

Here are some real item descriptions:

"Moldex brand n95 face mask 20 masks in a box for 130 dollars. Willing to ship after payment."



"We have a full cases of 2000 surgical face masks."

"Could easily be resold or used given there is currently a shortage."



It's easy to see the source of the public revulsion. While hospital staff find themselves forced to reuse masks and gloves, these sellers can hold the gear for their own use while also making incredible profits — in the case of the $130 box above, the price increase stands at more than 700 percent.

"Everyone has a different moral compass," suggested one St. Louis-area Craigslist seller in a phone interview with RFT. "But when money's involved that goes out the window quick."

And how. Viral videos have captured shopping carts stacked high with toilet paper, and it's become universally apparent that hand sanitizer is possibly the most valuable commodity known to civilization — a point highlighted to great effect by a March 14 New York Times story, recounting two brothers who drove 1,300 miles through multiple states, emptying stores of inventory, all to acquire a 17,000-bottle stockpile of hand sanitizer that sat unsold thanks to Amazon's crackdown on price gouging.

However, according to the Craigslist seller who spoke to RFT, the reality of price gouging at a time of pandemic is often less brazen and, perhaps, less deserving of contempt.

"Obviously, they are gouging the prices," said the seller, who identified herself only as a Jordan.

"I’ve seen them go for $250 for a pack of ten. Do I think some feel guilty? Maybe? But rare. But I doubt it's going to be around much longer."

Indeed, the fight over price controls is already taking its toll. Online retail platforms, along with attorneys general in multiple states, have teamed up to combat price gouging; as of Tuesday, a spokesman for the Missouri Attorney General's Office said they'd already fielded more than 230 complaints of related to unfair pricing. In addition, Attorney General Eric Schmitt recently announced partnerships with Amazon and Facebook "to combat price gouging in Missouri," while asking consumers to report specific items and sellers using a new online form.

But when I asked Jordan about those efforts at regulation, or if she feared possible punishment, she sounded dubious.

"I highly doubt that the government is going to knock on the door," she said, and instead suggested that the online giants were stumbling to clean up their own platforms.

"They have taken down a lot of peoples' listings, but they just re-upload it, and the algorithms, they can't keep up," she observed. "So they only target a few people and leave the rest up."

She makes a good point. For instance, one can still find N95 masks on Ebay today — one listing, for a pack of ten, has a "Buy It Now" price of $360 — despite the company's announcement on March 5 of a ban on all listings for health care masks, hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes.

SCREENSHOT EBAY
  • SCREENSHOT EBAY

The listings may be active, but these sellers, Jordan charged, should know what they're doing: "They're using people's fear as profit. It's quick money."

Of course, there's been quick money for Jordan as well. She's made five sales, at $100 per box, for an item described as a "brand new" N95 respirator, the very gear the CDC recommends for use by medical staff and whose national supply is critically low.

"I have two boxes left," Jordan's listing continued, as written. "These are great for the elderly and also immune deficiency also if you are feeling sick. Unfortunately there is a huge shortage I am just asking what I purchased I can ship or pickup only serious inquiries only."

During the interview, Jordan attempted to distance herself from the more extreme cases of price gouging. She said she was personally shocked by the Times story of the brothers who had amassed 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer. In her telling, Jordan hadn't set out to target a vulnerable market, but the contrary: She claimed that she herself was a victim of price gouging.

"I actually bought some masks back in 2014, because I was living in Chicago when the Ebola outbreak happened," she said. "I had a newborn son at the time, and they were gouging prices then, too. I ended up spending close to $1,000."

It was during that Ebola outbreak — which was eventually contained after infecting less than a dozen Americans — that Jordan claimed she purchased her masks at $100 per box. It was only fair, in her mind, to sell the masks back at the same price.

Jordan said she doesn't feel guilty about her listing because, as she explained in the item description, she's just asking for what she purchased them for. But while she's sold a handful of the coveted N95s, Jordan claimed that she also gave four away: One box went to a cancer patient, another to an elderly woman with diabetes and asthma — "She lives by herself, she's afraid to go out for food, that her immune system is so low that it could kill her," Jordan recalled.

This is the other side of price gouging: While manufacturers and governments are slowly working to increase inventory of items like masks, it's the price gougers — like Jordan — who are frequently the last available gatekeepers for emergency supplies.

At the same time, what Jordan is doing potentially violates the law. Missouri regulations prohibit "[Taking] advantage of a person's... hardship caused by extreme temporary conditions, and charging a price substantially above the previous market price of the merchandise in seller's trade area."

But unlike other states, Missouri's regulations don't specify an exact percentage or further define "substantially above." The issue comes down to the discretion of Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt. On Wednesday, his office announced that it had issued a cease and desist order against a seller described as a "Springfield area man" who reportedly spent $23,000 buying up thousands of masks to then resell. (He's since donated 600 masks back to the retailers he bought them from.)

In an email to the RFT, Chris Nuelle, a spokesman with the Attorney General's Office, noted that price gouging is different from the "small price fluctuations" one expects to see due to the sudden flux in supply and demand.

"We’re really looking for the most egregious examples of profiteering or price gouging," Nuelle wrote. "We're really looking at huge markups on essential items, which typically come from third party sellers."

Third party sellers ... like Jordan.

Subjectively speaking, Jordan sounded like someone genuinely concerned with ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and its related shortages. She wasn't clearing out store shelves at 6 a.m. or holding out on hundreds of pounds of essential items. It's worth noting, though, that I can't corroborate Jordan's laudable decision to donate her spare masks, or her personal account about buying price-gouged masks in 2014 and now selling them for the same price. Mitigating factors aside, it's still price gouging.

"I’m still in it at the price point I purchased it from, and I still feel bad doing that," Jordan conceded, "But I have to make that money back somehow, and I donated as well, too. If I didn't do it, other people would."

Several days after our interview, Jordan's listing disappeared from Craigslist, one among many to vanish as site attempted to implement its own crackdown.

I reached back out to Jordan. In an email, she said that she decided to take the listings down a few days after our interview. She's now worried that "we are a few steps away" from martial law and a full national shutdown.

"I'm keeping the masks and giving some to my neighbours," she explained. "With everything going on, I'd rather have it for my community."

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