Economy Health

The Kentucky Attorney General’s office is investigating hundreds of complaints from consumers about alleged price gouging as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the state.

The office tallied 860 complaints by Monday afternoon, said Attorney General Daniel Cameron. 

The complaints have flooded into the office since Gov. Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency on March 6 and issued an order prohibiting price gouging the next day. 

In an interview Tuesday, Cameron said the complaints are primarily related to the sale of consumer food items, emergency and medical supplies. The alleged violators include brick and mortar shops and online retailers, but Cameron declined to provide details, citing ongoing investigations. He said his office has issued letters to some companies, but has yet to issue any fines.

Companies can face civil fines up to $25,000 for violating the state’s price gouging laws.

A company can be found in violation of the state’s price gouging laws if they are found to be selling a good or service for a price “which is grossly in excess of the price prior to the declaration” of a state of emergency.

Prices that are more than 10 percent higher than they were before a state of emergency is declared may be in violation of the law.

The law also includes certain categories for services subject to price gouging enforcement. They include consumer food items; goods or services used for emergency cleanup; emergency supplies; medical supplies; home heating oil; building materials; housing; transportation, freight, and storage services; and gasoline or other motor fuels.

Cameron said his office is taking an “all hands on deck” approach to investigating price gouging complaints, even pulling in staff attorneys who don’t regularly focus on consumer matters.

“This office is responsible for upholding the safety of the people of the state,” he said. “We stand ready to do so.”

State law mandates price gouging orders can only remain in effect for 15-day increments and can only be extended for three additional 15-day increments.

Cameron declined to say if additional extensions would be needed presently, and said those conversations would be had when the time comes.

The state’s price gouging laws were cemented in statute in 2004, and can only be enacted by the governor. Since 2008, online state records show the law has been put into effect 19 times — but they nearly always come in response to severe weather. In fact, Beshear’s two most recent orders — the original order, and an extension last week — are the only instances in which price gouging prohibitions were put in place for something other than weather incidents.

Cameron also warned of scams during the pandemic, especially those from people posing as government officials connected to the Centers for Disease Control or UNICEF.

“There are folks that are trying to take advantage of the moment by passing themselves off as legitimate entities,” he said.

He also said his office is paying attention to predatory lending practices.

“You do everything you can to be vigilant, to make sure [people] are not being defrauded in this uncertain moment,” he said. “We are standing the gap.”

Residents can file a complaint with the Attorney General’s office online here or call 1-888-432-9257.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.