State goes after alleged COVID-19 price gouger, will soon have expanded powers

The Department of Law announced on Wednesday that it had filed a complaint against an Anchorage man accused of buying hundreds of boxes of N95 respirators and flipping them at “unconscionably high prices” on Amazon and eBay.

According to the announcement, the state is seeking to impose a $25,000 fine on Anchorage man Juan Lyle Aune for each sale he made. The complaint alleges that Aune made several purchases at local hardware stores—including buying out Lowe’s entire supply of N95 respirators, nearly 300 20-mask packs—for between about $17 and $23 and sold the boxes online for as much as $90.

“Price gouging is simply unacceptable,” said Attorney General Kevin G. Clarkson. “The Department of Law is fully committed to taking action against those who would engage in unscrupulous behavior to profit off of COVID-19.”

According to a report by KTUU, this case is being brought under the state’s unfair trade practices law after the state was notified by Amazon of the sales. The state’s consumer protection unit was expanded in 2018 and has brought a handful of lawsuits ranging from opioid lawsuits to lawsuits against a price-gouging motor home rental company.

Alaska doesn’t currently have price gouging laws on the books, but it will soon have expanded powers thanks to an amendment to legislation that extends the state’s COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration.

Under the new powers, the state will be able to go after people who sell certain goods for more than 10 percent of what’s charted “in the normal course of business before the start of the” COVID-19 public health disaster. It will cover the following products:

  • Food
  • Medicine
  • Medical equipment
  • Fuel
  • Sanitation products
  • Hygiene products
  • Essential household supplies
  • Other essential goods

However, the measure has allowances if the costs of products and transportation to sellers rises due to increased costs to the seller. It also allows fuel sellers to raise prices according to market fluctuations.

The amendment was brought by Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, on a separate COVID-19 bill and was ultimately rolled into the omnibus bill that covered the extension of the health disaster declaration. Wielechowski previously pushed for price gouging laws, particularly when it comes to the sale of gas and heating oil produced in Alaska.

“We’ve seen stories about price gouging on the news. Amazon shut down maybe 5,000 sellers because of price gouging,” he said during the March 27 meeting where the amendment was brought up. “I don’t think we’ve seen it to a huge extent in Alaska but the concern in Alaska is we are a very small state, we have very limited supply chains and there’s the potential that there could be tremendous increase in costs.”

The amendment is contained in Senate Bill 241, which was sent to the governor on Wednesday afternoon and is currently awaiting his signature.

The measure extends the disaster declaration through Nov. 21 and gives the governor and state health officials expanded powers to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Among its many measures, the legislation puts a pause on evictions and foreclosures through the end of June and also extends the PFD application deadline to the end of April.

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