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Coronavirus fears lead to price gouging on hand sanitizer and face masks: "They're taking advantage of people"

Consumers face coronavirus price-gouging
How coronavirus price-gouging is hurting consumers 04:24

As fears over the coronavirus grow, retail stores are selling out of products like hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and face masks. And some customers are reporting much higher prices than normal.

In New York City, pharmacies are having trouble keeping up with demand, CBS News consumer investigative correspondent Anna Werner reports.

Leon Tarasenko, the owner of Pasteur Pharmacy in Manhattan, said as soon as hand sanitizer comes in, "it's off the shelf."

"When an order comes in, within about an hour, it's all gone," he said. "We try to keep it to a limit. Three to a customer." 

One New Jersey woman said she went to six stores before finding hand sanitizer.
"When I went in to pay, she said $50, and I think that's disgusting, and they're taking advantage of people right now," she said.

Some customers said they won't pay the sky-high prices.

"I think if you just get soap and wash your hands for 20 seconds, I think it'd be fine," said Melvina Starks.

Online, sales of virus protection products have skyrocketed, up 817% in the last two months.

Two large bottles of Purell hand sanitizer were on sale for $299 on Amazon. That size normally sells for about $9 a bottle. Another listing, for four boxes of masks, is usually about $20 — it was being sold for more than $1,000.

Amazon said it is blocking or removing thousands of offers where it says "bad actors are attempting to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis."

Now states and cities are cracking down. California's attorney general told businesses that if they violated price gouging laws, "You'd better be prepared to pay the price for your lawbreaking."

New York City is issuing $500 fines to any stores found price gouging, starting this week.

"This is not a time to be trying to make a quick buck on the backs of hard-working people who are just very anxious and scared," said Department of Consumer and Worker Protection Commissioner Lorelei Salas. "The businesses are going to have to make sure that they either are keeping the prices what should be a normal fluctuation or they'll have to justify the price increase."

Many health officials say the best steps to take for protection are to wash your hands for 20 seconds and refrain from touching your face. They say masks are a good idea for people who are already sick, so they don't infect others, but wearing a mask won't stop you from getting the virus.

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