New York Attorney General Letitia James' team has fielded more...

New York Attorney General Letitia James' team has fielded more than 7,000 complaints statewide. Credit: Charles Eckert

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept government consumer affairs teams busy.

Higher prices for household goods like toilet paper and groceries have shocked Long Islanders and prompted complaints about potential price gouging.

New York Attorney General Letitia James’ team has fielded more than 7,000 such complaints statewide, and the Nassau County Office of Consumer Affairs has received more than 950, their offices said. Suffolk County officials declined to share the number of complaints they've received. 

Higher prices emerged while the supply chain struggled to meet demand from Americans who started spending more time at home and sought out larger quantities of household items, retail analysts said.

Some companies may have passed on greater expenses to consumers. At nearly every stage in the supply chain, suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers have likely spent more on health care, cleaning and personnel while striving to maintain socially-distant, sanitary workplaces, according to analysts.

So when do these increases become inappropriate, legally speaking?

James took action when Quality King Distributors Inc. increased the price of a 19-ounce Lysol spray can from $4.25 to $9.15, despite not incurring any increased costs for the disinfectant, according to a lawsuit filed by her office. The Bellport wholesaler's actions led to Lysol cans selling for as much as $16.99 on shelves of neighborhood stores, the suit said.

New York Attorney General Letitia James has taken action against...

New York Attorney General Letitia James has taken action against companies for price hikes on disinfectant products.   Credit: Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

Quality King Distributors has pledged to fight the lawsuit in court and said that keeping employees healthy has grown more costly.

Nassau "made a little history" when federal prosecutors brought the first case under anti-price gouging regulations enacted during COVID-19, according to County Executive Laura Curran. Authorities accused Amardeep Singh of hoarding tons of personal protective equipment and marking up items by as much as 1,328%. An attorney for Singh argued the Woodbury man did not commit a crime because the federal measure did not define what constitutes hoarding or price gouging.

Here is a look at how federal and other price gouging laws regulate prices on Long Island:

What is price gouging?

An executive order from President Donald Trump prohibits hoarding N-95 face...

An executive order from President Donald Trump prohibits hoarding N-95 face masks and other protective equipment with the goal of selling them above market rates. Credit: Bloomberg/Justin Chin

State and local laws forbid “unconscionably excessive” prices or charging amounts that create a “gross disparity” between the value and the price of an item or service.

Is price gouging always illegal?

Federal and state price gouging laws are triggered by emergencies that disrupt the market.

Nassau and Suffolk measures govern trade at all times, county representatives said. 

What did the federal government do?

President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, which is designed to prevent hoarding of sought-after items with the intention of selling them above market rates.

The Trump Administration determined several health and medical resources fall under the act, such as N-95 face masks, portable ventilators, sterilizers and medical gowns. Nobody may accumulate these products beyond the "reasonable demands of business, personal or home consumption," or with the goal of selling them above market rates, according to the president's executive order. 

How does enforcement work at the federal level?

Eastern District U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue, whose jurisdiction includes Long Island, and other U.S. Attorney Offices enforce the measure.

Long Islanders may alert federal authorities about potential violations here.

If convicted, guilty parties may face fines of up to $10,000 and up to a year in prison.

Consumers may not bring lawsuits under the act.

What did the state government do?

COVID-19 triggered the state's price gouging law, which has long prohibited “unconscionably excessive prices” at any stage in the chain of distribution for goods and services that are vital for the health, safety and welfare of consumers.

In early June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation expanding the law to cover medical supplies and equipment as well as to protect businesses, health providers and the government from price gouging.

A court may deem a price “unconscionably excessive” if there was a “gross disparity” between it and the price charged before the market disruption — or if the price “grossly exceeded” rates in the area.

Businesses can prove they were not price gouging by demonstrating that the profit margin they earn has not increased, according to the law. This does not mean that greater profit margins necessarily involve price gouging. Each situation is assessed on a case-by-case basis, according to the attorney general's office. 

How does state enforcement work?

Consumers may submit complaints to the Department of State’s Division of Consumer Protection online or request a form by calling the division's toll-free complaint hotline, at 1-800-697-1220.

Staff may attempt to mediate the conflict as well as refer matters to the attorney general's office.

The attorney general's office accepts complaints directly online.

James' team examines allegations, issues cease and desist orders and files lawsuits, as it deems appropriate.

If convicted, businesses may be required to pay up to $25,000 for each violation or three times the receipts for overcharged goods and services — whichever is greater. Companies may also have to pay restitution to consumers.

Consumers may not bring suits under the law.

How do county laws work?

Nassau and Suffolk counties have measures prohibiting deceptive and “unconscionable” trade practices. This includes activity that results in a “gross disparity” between the value a customer received and the price the individual paid.

The Nassau County Office of Consumer Affairs accepts complaints at pricegouging@nassaucounty.gov.

Staff will investigate submissions and may issue violations, which carry a maximum fine of $5,000.

Businesses have the opportunity to present evidence that their prices were justified. If violations are not dismissed, firms may reach a settlement with the county or take the matter up in an administrative hearing.

The Suffolk County Department of Labor, Licensing & Consumer Affairs has complaint forms and instructions online.

If inspectors determine prices were inappropriate, the county may issue violations. Businesses have the chance to defend themselves in administrative hearings. If a firm is found guilty, the company may face a penalty of up to $750 and may need to reimburse consumers.

A consumer can sue a vendor in civil court for circumstances that lead to violations in Nassau, according to a county spokesman.

Consumers may not sue to enforce the Suffolk law, a county spokeswoman said.

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