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Amazon customers face price gouging, consumer watchdog says

Shopping on Amazon for paper towels, rice or other products that consumers hoovered up during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic? You might be able to find them cheaper elsewhere, according to a report by a consumer advocacy group that raises concerns about price gouging at the e-commerce company.

In a new report that compared the cost of 10 food, health and cleaning products found on last month with prices charged by other major retailers for the same items, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that the items on Amazon were often two to 14 times more expensive than the identical products sold by Target, Walmart and others.

A package of Clorox disinfectant wipes, for example, which sold on Amazon for $37.95, sold for five bucks at other online retailers, while a thermometer available at Amazon for $29.99 cost $10 elsewhere, according to PIRG. A pack of six Bounty Doubles Select-A-Size rolls on Amazon cost $58.80 in August, while the exact same Bounty product on Walmart's website sold for $9.98, and $11.99 online at Kroger, according to the findings. 

On Wednesday, a search on Amazon found one seller offering a 12-pack of 84-sheet rolls of Bounty paper towels for $53.99. That was more than twice the $25.13 is charging for a 12-pack of 110-sheet rolls of Bounty. 

Similarly, a 42-ounce bottle of Clorox bleach runs about $10 on Amazon, and $2.69 on Target's website. A five-pound bag of Pillsbury Best All-Purpose Flour selling for $9 on Amazon sold for $3.29 at local store via Instacart.

States urged to halt price gouging 

While Amazon has a policy of prohibiting sellers from exploiting an emergency by charging excessively high prices on products and shipping, the biggest U.S. online marketplace isn't doing enough to enforce its rules, PIRG contends. The group is pushing for legislation that would make any seller accountable for raising prices above a certain threshold. 

"Not only do we need Amazon and other major online marketplaces to police themselves, but also we're calling on every state to pass anti-price gouging laws that will protect consumers," Grace Brombach, a watchdog associate at U.S. PIRG, said in a statement. "No one should have to pay exorbitant prices on essential products, during this pandemic or in future national and state emergencies."

Retailers accused of price gouging amid coronavirus outbreak 04:16

"There is no place for price gouging on Amazon, and that's why our teams are monitoring our store 24/7 and have already removed over a million offers for attempted price gouging," an Amazon spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch in an email. "We are disappointed that bad actors are attempting to take advantage of this global health crisis and, in addition to removing these offers, have suspended more than 10,000 selling accounts."

Amazon is referring the most serious cases of possible price gouging to law enforcement, the spokesperson added.

The company told U.S. PIRG in August that it tries to identify excessively high prices through manual and automated processes.

PIRG found even more dramatic instances of apparent price gouging on Amazon earlier this year, with the retailer in March booting almost 4,000 sellers for what it described as "seeking to profit off the COVID-19 crisis." More than a half-million offers were pulled from Amazon and more than 3,900 accounts were suspended for violating its fair-pricing policies, the retailer said at that time. 

PIRG is not the first to allege price gouging amid the coronavirus. New York authorities in August accused one of the country's biggest egg producers of jacking up prices as demand spiked in the spring, an allegation refuted by Hillandale Farms. 

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