Price gouging: What to watch for to protect your wallet

by Grace Brombach, Consumer Watchdog Associate

March 6, 2021

Price gouging is an issue that jeopardizes the safety and financial security of consumers and can reveal itself during the most difficult circumstances.  National and state emergencies often become a playground for bad actors looking to profit off of products that are necessary but in short supply. From wildfires, hurricanes and snowstorms, to a pandemic that has completely altered life as we know it, the last year has offered price gougers far too many opportunities to take advantage. 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. PIRG suspected price gouging on critical supplies, and our first analysis into prices for surgical masks and hand sanitizers proved our suspicions correct. Since then, we’ve released two additional reports: one that compares prices between major online retailers and another that compared pre-pandemic prices to those one year later for 750 “essential” products on Amazon. 

Our popular tips to prevent and report price gouging have assisted in record-breaking reports to states’ attorneys general, and also has led to new and strengthened related laws in states including California, Massachusetts and Colorado

Consumers should:
  • Avoid stockpiling essentials.
  • Report cases of price gouging when they arise.
  • Shop around to find the best prices on the products they need - - whether that’s in stores or across multiple websites.
  • Learn how to spot price gouging: Businesses are allowed to increase prices for critical supplies during an emergency, but they are NOT allowed to raise the price of products excessively to take advantage of the current pandemic. While laws vary by state, increases over 20% may be considered price gouging. Some state laws, prohibit significant increases in prices as compared to other products. For instance, if one hand sanitizer is priced at double the cost of similar products, that may violate price gouging laws.
  • If you aren’t sure whether a product is priced too high, it’s better to report problematic items to the company and your Attorney General.
What do you need to report price gouging?

In the United States, 37 states, three territories and Washington DC currently have laws that help authorities combat price gouging during national or state emergencies. While the specifics of these laws vary by state, many take effect when the state declares an emergency. You should report any potential price gouging to your state Attorney General. You will generally need:

  • The name of the store/vendor where you saw the item and their address. 
  • Product details, including, but not limited to, the product type, brand, size, and price
  • The date, time, and location you saw the product.
  • You can improve the investigation by providing a picture of the item.
Here's how to report price gouging in every state.

Below are all of the reports, tips and information we’ve compiled around price gouging to help consumers: 

One year later: Comparing prices on 750 products, pre-pandemic to today on Amazon, January 2021

Six months later: Comparing prices on 15 different products among different retailers, September 2020

Price gouging during the pandemic, February 2020

How to identity and report price gouging