If you do an Amazon search for “coronavirus,” you get a ton of self-published guides on how to beat it, a foul-mouthed colouring book, some sanitizing products, and of course, face masks. But in recent weeks, Amazon has banned more than 1 million products for falsely claiming that they can cure or protect against COVID-19, Reuters reports.
This follows news from earlier this week that the online retailer was warning third-party sellers against hiking prices for face masks. Reuters also reports that this week, Amazon launched a probe into price-gouging in Italy for sanitizing gels and masks following news of the outbreak there, with cases spiking up this week to 650 total with 17 deaths.
In its report, Reuters noted it had found one merchant selling a 10-pack of N95 masks for $US128 ($196)—a significant markup considering the average seller’s price for the product was $US41.24 ($63). Searching for “N95 mask” on the platform, Gizmodo found at least one entry for a 5-pack priced at $US175 ($268) from a third-party merchant. That’s considerably higher than a 10-pack of 3M N95 masks priced at about $US30 ($46) via price-tracking site camelcamelcamel.com. (Though, if you look at the prices for the 3M 10-pack, it seems to have peaked at $US245 ($375) from a third-party seller in the last day or so.)
Gizmodo reached out to Amazon for further clarity on what counts as “inaccurate” claims and at what point a product is considered to be guilty of price-gouging but we didn’t immediately receive a response. That said, an Amazon spokesperson told Reuters that the company can remove offers when the price is “significantly higher than recent prices offered on or off Amazon.” It also noted that Amazon monitors for gouging and false claims via both automated and manual review.
“We are disappointed that bad actors are attempting to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis and, in line with our long-standing policy, have recently blocked or removed tens of thousands of offers,” an Amazon spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email. As for what sort of penalties face vendors found in violation, Amazon noted it was taking action by suspending or removing selling privileges.
However, it’s not exactly clear if the “false claims” edict also applies to the many self-published e-books cashing in on the coronavirus news cycle. A cursory search on Amazon showed dozens of titles, with many claiming to provide accurate information about how best to protect oneself or a family. While most seemingly regurgitate readily available information, at least one bizarrely claims that COVID-19 is “Satan’s Bug.” There’s also a number of vitamin supplements that show up in coronavirus searches, which have not been proven to cure colds let alone a new, contagious virus.
All this to say, if at all possible, perhaps don’t buy your coronavirus supplies from Amazon. Or, report outrageous prices you do see. Also, a healthy dose of common sense and scepticism is always welcome. The Centre for Disease Control’s guidelines are readily available here, and no, it does not recommend wearing face masks unless you’re already showing symptoms.
Update, 02/28/2020, 3pm: Added comment from Amazon