Nessel calls out price-gouging of businesses during outbreak

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Michigan's attorney general says residents should be on high alert after some local businesses are being accused of price-gouging customers during heightened fears of coronavirus. 

As of Tuesday night, the department had received 572 complaints since Friday and Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office had sent cease and desist letters to at least three sellers: a Hillsdale resident selling face masks on eBay, a Menards store selling bleach, face masks and other products at high costs, and an Ann Arbor cleaning supply store advertising Purell online for $20, $40 and $60. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel answers questions from reporters during a press conference Feb. 21 in Lansing.

Nessel said she is aware of businesses selling face masks, hand sanitizers and cleaning supplies at exceptionally high prices — likely in violation of the Michigan Consumer Protection Act. Other products that consumers might seek to purchase like toilet paper and non-perishable food may also be at risk of price-gouging practices.

Four businesses have been contacted by the Attorney General’s office to gather more information on alleged price-gouging including grocery stores in Farmington Hills and Dearborn.

"Supply and demand might be a familiar saying for retailers, but price-gouging is against the law and protecting consumers against unfair business practices is a service my office provides to residents,” Nessel said. “My Consumer Protection team reviews all complaints we receive and determines whether appropriate legal action should be taken."

The struggle to find health care supplies followed the state's March 10 emergency declaration after the first positive cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Michigan. 

The Attorney General's office said it contacted a West Michigan retailer, True Value in Allendale, last week for reportedly selling individual face masks in plastic bags for $6-$7 and $29 per package. A discussion with the business owner took place, followed by a letter requiring the business to provide specific information to avoid formal action or investigation, the office said.

The office also contacted A.M. Cleaning & Supplies L.L.C. in Ann Arbor after nine complaints of the store selling three different sized Purell hand sanitizers for $60, $40 and $20. The letter said the price broke down to $5 per gram and added that "it is apparent your store was seeking to position itself to profit from an evolving public health emergency."

The store responded on its website saying someone posted the wrong price for Purell sanitizers and it has "never sold Purell's Hand Sanitizer for high amounts."

Nessel also sent letters to grocery stores India Grocers in Farmington Hills and Dearborn Fresh on Colson Street after receiving five complaints of price-gouging hand sanitizers. She urged the store to immediately correct the pricing and said her office is  investigating the allegations.

Antibacterial items at Dearborn Fresh supermarket in Dearborn.

In a Facebook post, Mona Abdallah shared photos of Dearborn Fresh's hand sanitizer prices and cleaning supplies saying, "Shame on them."

"How haram (forbidden) is this? Instead of passing them out to the people of the community and helping each other out, they are scamming people. So If you are wondering why grocery stores around you don’t have any items, it’s because people like this," Abdallah said.

Nessel advises residents to report suspected offenses to her office online or by calling 877-765-8388.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_