Online retailers Amazon Marketplace and eBay are struggling to deal with the scourge of coronavirus-profiteering, as unscrupulous sellers and hoarders try to offload items such as hand sanitiser, cleaning products and toilet paper at inflated prices, according to an investigation by consumer association Which?.
This is in spite of warnings from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which at the start of March 2020 warned online traders against exploiting the coronavirus outbreak to take advantage of consumers, and has since launched a Covid-19 Taskforce to tackle the problem head on.
The snapshot investigation by Which? found that third-party sellers are still brazenly ripping off consumers and listing overpriced items that are currently hard to find – albeit not necessarily in short supply.
“Online marketplaces have taken some action against coronavirus price gouging, but our investigation shows unscrupulous sellers are still cashing in on people’s fears by selling essential items at extortionate prices on eBay and Amazon,” said Which? head of consumer protection, Sue Davies.
“These companies must make good on their pledges to stamp out coronavirus profiteering, and if they fall short the CMA must be ready to take strong enforcement action.
“The government should consider how it will work with the retail sector as a whole to keep the price of essential items reasonable as the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak continues.”
Which? uncovered hundreds of active listings and auctions for overpriced items, among them a £40 thermometer priced at £300 on eBay and £150 on Amazon, a £3 bottle of disinfectant being sold at a 1,000% markup of £29.99 on eBay. Similarly overinflated prices were being charged for products such as Domestos, Tampax, and various brands of infant formula.
Sue Davies, Which?
It said consumers were actually buying these products – a flurry of bids on eBay’s auction site sent the price for a bundled pack of three bottles of Dettol and three packets of antibacterial wipes soaring to £210. In the case of eBay, where listings put up by profiteers were taken down, multiple items had often already been purchased before the listing could be removed.
Moreover, such listings continue to appear regularly, and Which? said this was a strong indicator that the technical systems and checks both Amazon and eBay have in place to protect end-users are not fit for purpose and failing, although it noted that Amazon appeared to be having more success in this regard.
The organisation said its investigation raised broader questions about whether or not the checks and balances that eBay and Amazon have in place are working and called on both platforms to take more effective action against third-party sellers and introduce stricter controls to identify and prevent price gouging.
It also called on the government to work more closely with Trading Standards, the CMA, online traders, online retail platforms, supermarkets and the wider retail sector to tackle irresponsible price-hiking during the coronavirus crisis.
Given the exceptional circumstances brought about by coronavirus, the government should consider how it will work with the retail sector as a whole to tackle irresponsible price-hiking – bringing together businesses, including supermarkets and online marketplaces, as well as Trading Standards and the CMA – to agree how to keep essential items, that should be accessible to all, at reasonable prices.
An eBay spokesperson said: “All the items flagged by Which? have been removed and enforcement action has been taken against the sellers.
“We announced on Friday additional measures to tackle coronavirus-related price gouging. This is a continuation of the aggressive action against price gouging, which has included suspending hundreds of accounts, removing hundreds of thousands of listings, and suspending scores of bad seller accounts. Specifically in the face masks and hand sanitiser categories, only pre-approved white-listed vendors will be allowed to sell these items.
“We are continually monitoring the situation and will consider widening the ban to include other categories if appropriate,” they added.
An Amazon spokesperson said: “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 tens of thousands of offers. In addition to removing these offers, we are terminating accounts.”
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