Amazon is reportedly deleting some 3rd-party listings that jack up surgical-mask prices as the coronavirus creates a shortage

tsonnemaker@businessinsider.com (Tyler Sonnemaker)
A worker collecting orders at Amazon's fulfillment center in Rugeley, central England, in 2012.

REUTERS/Phil Noble

  • The coronavirus outbreak has led to a shortage of protective masks and other medical supplies, leading some sellers to significantly increase prices.
  • Amazon has been trying to prevent the practice on its platform, alerting sellers who may be in violation of its pricing policies, according to Wired.
  • Most states in the US have "price gouging" laws meant to prevent businesses from taking of advantage of consumers by charging exorbitant amounts of money during emergencies.
  • Authorities in countries such as China and Italy have also received complaints about price gouging since the outbreak, while Amazon has faced similar challenges before.
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As people across the world try to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus, which has now claimed 2,700 lives and infected another 80,000 while spreading further beyond China, demand for medical supplies has spiked. As a result, prices for products like surgical masks have jumped to several times what they normally cost, with businesses and individuals selling masks in bulk at a premium on sites ranging from Facebook to Craigslist

Amazon, however, has been cracking down on price gouging on its platform, according to Wired. The news site said third-party sellers had received emails from Amazon alerting them about masks that were "not in compliance" with the company's fair-pricing policy, which bars sellers from charging "significantly higher than recent prices offered on or off Amazon."

Wired also reported that some listings advertising overpriced masks have been deleted from Amazon, while noting the issue of price gouging has been fiercely debated on the Amazon seller forums.

Most US states have laws against raising prices excessively during emergencies such as natural disasters. Such laws are meant to prevent businesses from taking advantage of people in need of basics like food, gas, and shelter. Some experts, however, argue that such laws can backfire by encouraging people to hoard supplies.

Since the outbreak, Chinese officials have received at least 274 complaints about price gouging and hoarding, according to Reuters. In Italy, which has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus outbreak of any European country, authorities have opened an investigation into high prices for surgical masks, according to Reuters.

This issue isn't a first for Amazon. Following Hurricane Irma in 2017, Amazon faced criticism after customers reported wildly inflated prices, at which point it said it would begin taking action against vendors.

Amazon could not immediately be reached for comment.

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