Amazon is cracking down on third-party merchants who violate its policies while selling items related to the new coronavirus disease known as Covid-19. Following reports by WIRED and others of price gouging and misleading claims, the retail giant confirmed it had removed or blocked over 1 million products that falsely advertised to defend against or cure the illness, as well as tens of thousands of items—such as face masks—that were listed for inflated prices. Reuters first reported the scale of Amazon’s actions Thursday.
“Amazon has always required sellers provide accurate information on product detail pages and we remove those that violate our policies,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement. Third-party Amazon sellers are also required to abide by Amazon’s Fair Pricing Policy, which prohibits setting prices that are “significantly higher” than those recently offered on or off Amazon.
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As concerns about coronavirus outbreaks in the US grew, WIRED reported Tuesday that some Amazon sellers had jacked up the prices on face masks by four or five times what they cost only a few weeks before. Sellers have also tried making a profit by tacking on exorbitant shipping costs, sometimes in the hundreds of dollars, also in violation of Amazon’s rules.
The high prices have attracted lots of attention. In response to a question at a press conference about the coronavirus Wednesday, President Donald Trump said that he would “definitely investigate” price gouging of medical supplies. Italian authorities have also announced they were looking into “insane” online prices of items related to the illness. The Better Business Bureau has also released alerts warning consumers about counterfeit face masks and bogus miracle cures.
One face mask seller, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid damaging their relationship with Amazon, told WIRED the company’s enforcement mechanisms have been haphazard. They said their offers were sometimes removed even when they were the lowest-priced option on a specific listing. “Sometimes I could drop my price below some arbitrary line and it would go back on,” the seller told WIRED. Amazon declined to comment about the seller’s claims. Sellers and manufacturers have long accused Amazon of failing to effectively moderate its sprawling marketplace.
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While the risk of catching Covid-19 in the US remains low, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Americans earlier this week to brace for the possibility of a major outbreak in the country. As a result, many people are stocking up on supplies like face masks, hand sanitizer, and nonperishable food. Experts say, however, that simple measures like proper hand-washing and not touching your face are often more important to prevent the spread of the disease than wearing a mask.
Hoarding masks may help to exacerbate shortages where they are really needed, like in hospitals, but also in professions that aren’t as discussed in all the coronavirus news, such as construction and manufacturing. “Safety products that protect us from sanding and sheetrock or drywall dust are completely out of stock, putting all contractors and workers at risk for the real and present danger of inhaling silicone and other particles like lead paint dust,” says Don Shepard, who works in construction in Austin, Texas.
Health care workers should get some help from the federal government, at least. Trump has asked Congress for $2.5 billion to fight the coronavirus, some of which would go toward stockpiling protective gear, including masks.
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