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Online sellers hike price of essential items to profit from coronavirus

Paloma Kubiak
Written By:
Paloma Kubiak

Shoppers are being charged rip-off rates for essential products listed on online marketplaces, an investigation has revealed.

In-demand items are being sold for at least double the typical supermarket price as third-party sellers seek to profiteer from the coronavirus crisis.

Carex hand wash and sanitiser were being sold on Amazon Marketplace for five times the typical supermarket price and 9% were on sale for 10x the price.

For Dettol products such as antibacterial soap, wipes and spray, on the first page of results on Amazon, around six in 10 listings were double the price or more.

On the first page of listings for Dettol on eBay, the investigation by campaign group Which? revealed that not only were 85% of Dettol items being sold for double the typical supermarket cost, but two in 10 (22%) were five times the typical price, and 8% were 10 times the price.

Other popular household names such as Andrex and Kleenex were also listed at high prices to exploit customers.

Which?’s new price-gouging reporting tool has received hundreds of reports of inflated prices so far, with six in 10 (58%) about products sold on online marketplaces. Given that Amazon and eBay are the most popular online marketplaces in the UK, it’s no surprise that a large proportion of reports are about them.

In one case reported, a 59-year-old woman with a chronic lung condition and who has to stay at home due to serious issues with her immune system, saw a seller on Amazon Marketplace selling one litre of Dettol spray for £29.99. She said: “It’s disgusting. I have had to use these products for years now for hygiene reasons for managing serious health conditions and the current shortages mean I have to try to look elsewhere if not available for my Tesco delivery, but I cannot afford to pay the prices.”

On eBay, a 500ml bottle of Dettol surface cleanser, usually sold for £1.75 or less, was listed for more than £9 by one seller. In the reviews, a buyer said they had been forced to buy it at an ‘exorbitant price’ for their elderly mother who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.

Which? said action is being taken against price-gouging by both Amazon and eBay by blocking and removing large quantities of listings or offers and suspending accounts.

Sue Davies, head of consumer protection at Which?, said: “It cannot be right that potentially thousands of people have paid unjustifiably high prices to buy essential items during this Covid-19 crisis. While welcome, it’s clear that measures being put in place by online marketplaces are not enough to stop coronavirus profiteering by those seeking to exploit the current situation.

“The government, working with the CMA, needs to step in with emergency legislation to enable swift action to crack down on price-gouging and keep the price of essential items reasonable during crises both now and in the future.”

To report price-gouging on Amazon, buyers need to go through the contact us/help page while on eBay, shoppers can ‘report this listing’ for every product.

An Amazon spokesperson said: “There is no place for price gouging on Amazon. When a bad actor attempts to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis, it’s bad for customers and the hundreds of thousands of honest businesses selling in our store.”

“In line with our long-standing policy, we have recently blocked or removed hundreds of thousands of offers and pursued legal action against bad actors.”

An eBay spokesperson said: “While a small minority of unscrupulous sellers do attempt to take advantage of other users, effective safeguards have been in place for weeks to prevent this.”