CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos gestures as he addresses the Amazon’s annual Smbhav event in New Delhi on January 15, 2020.
CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos gestures as he addresses the Amazon’s annual Smbhav event in New Delhi on January 15, 2020.
Photo: Sajjad Hussain (Getty)

Citing “disturbing” reports of price-gouging on Amazon in connection with the global coronavirus outbreak, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey on Wednesday asked the world’s largest online retailer to disclose its internal procedures for combating accounts of exorbitant markups on items such as masks and hand sanitizers.

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“As the world confronts the prospect of a serious and far-reaching pandemic, corporate America has a responsibility to prevent profiteering on the sales of items such as hand-sanitizer and surgical masks,” reads the Markey letter addressed to CEO Jeff Bezos. “No one should be allowed to reap a windfall from fear and human suffering.”

Amazon is reportedly struggling to address the problem. The Financial Times reported Tuesday that some items, including respiratory masks—the efficacy of which are a matter of great debate—have been marked up by more than 2,000 percent. One box of 20 masks, the paper noted, was being offered on the site at a price $370 higher than usual.

Amazon said that “price-gouging” is a violation of its policies in a statement that referred specifically to “basic need products during a global health crisis,” adding that it had removed offers for “tens of thousands” of products in response. More generally, Amazon’s “fair pricing policy” forbids sellers from setting a price on a product or service “significantly higher than recent prices offered on or off Amazon.”

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Most states have laws against artificially inflating the prices of commodities once a state of emergency has been declared. In California—where a state of emergency was declared in Los Angeles on Wednesday after six new COVID-19 cases were confirmed—jacking up the cost of certain products and services, including household essentials like food and medical supplies, by more than 10 percent during a state of emergency is a crime punishable by up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Markey wrote that Amazon had taken “appropriate first steps” to address the issue, but that he remained concerned about continued reports of items being marked up beyond reasonable prices. The Massachusetts senator has asked Bezos to disclose the process through which Amazon determines which accounts are violating its fair pricing policies, and what additional resources the company is devoting to address the issue.

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“Internet-based retailers such as Amazon.com have a particular responsibility to guard against price gouging in current circumstances as consumers—who are finding the shelves of local brick-and-mortar stores bare, and who may wish to avoid venturing into crowded stores and shopping malls—turn to the internet,” Markey wrote.

Congressional members are widely reported to have reached a bipartisan deal on $8.3 billion in funding to address cases of the coronavirus, which, at time of writing, has killed 11 people in the U.S. and more than 3,300 worldwide.

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Senior Reporter, Privacy & Security

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