NBC 5 Investigates has learned more than 10,000 consumers have complained of price gouging at stores across Texas since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.
New records from the Texas Attorney General’s office show consumers have complained about toilet paper allegedly sold for as much as $30, and egg prices some shoppers said had doubled during the pandemic.
Many of the complaints involve pop-up stores selling personal protective equipment, like a Plano thrift store called Re-Sale by Rare &Unique, that has transformed itself into a pandemic preppers paradise.
On its Facebook page, the store frequently posts videos showing the latest shipments of supplies. In one video the store owner says, “We get masks in everyday, 100,000 masks a day comes into our store.”
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In another, she says, “You can almost never find N95's we get N95's by the boxes a few times a week.”
Records provided by the Texas Attorney General’s office show 20 of the store’s customers have filed price gouging complaints. One customer complained "...PPE supplies are being sold to the public at an outrageous price...1 Gallon of hand sanitizer is a whopping $69.99 each"
Other customers have questioned where the store gets its supplies.
“ ...This private thrift outlet is hoarding thousands of surgical masks”, one customer wrote.
The store owner, Princess Ogunsanlu would not speak with NBC 5 on camera. In an email, she said, "The notion we are engaging in price gouging is completely unfounded. We take our business very seriously and have operated ethically and within the confines of the law….to say we might be taking away from first responders is unfair and ridiculous!"
Ogunsanlu told NBC 5 the government could find more PPE if it only searched harder, like her business does and she defended her prices saying costs of supplies and shipping have risen dramatically.
Ogunsanlu said investigators from the attorney general’s office have contacted her and she’s provided them with price records. NBC 5 asked the Attorney General’s office about that, but a spokesperson said their policy does not allow them to confirm, deny or comment on investigations.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said his office has no authority to investigate complaints of businesses hoarding PPE supplies but it will follow up on all complaints to make sure stores are not using the pandemic to make excessive profits.
In an interview with NBC 5, Attorney General Ken Paxton said it could take months to investigate all the complaints as they continue pouring in.
“We look at every one. Some of them are dismissed quickly. Some of you know, it's not clear that there's a violation of the law,” said Paxton. “We try to look at all of them legitimately.
Paxton’s office has already filed a lawsuit against a major egg producer, accusing them of jacking up prices by more than 300%.
Texas law defines price gouging as charging an excessive or exorbitant price in a crisis, but the law does not say exactly how large a price increase is considered excessive. That’s left to the attorney general and the court's case by case.
“And so it's not as black and white as you might think,” said SMU economist, Dean Stansel.
Stansel believes price gouging laws can actually hurt consumers. He said rising prices prevent product shortages in a crisis because high prices keep consumers from overbuying.
“And really allowing prices to increase when demand goes up is an important part of a free market system,” said Stansel.
Paxton said he understands some prices may rise but won’t tolerate stores using a crisis to rack up outrageous profits.
“We don't want them to charge less than they should. We also don't want them to take advantage of especially things that are really essential to people's lives right now. Food and some of these you know, this protective equipment”.
Price-gougers may be required to reimburse consumers and may be held liable for civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation with an additional penalty of up to $250,000 if the affected consumers are elderly
Michele Anderson filed a price-gouging complaint last month after high prices for PPE at a Tarrant County medical supply store stunned her.
“I think it's totally illegal. Immoral.”, Anderson said.
“I bought a thermometer for $12.95 a little plastic one and disinfectant wipes for $24.99 and $19.99 – for a small bag of masks,” Anderson told NBC 5.
“Whatever the price, Michele felt she had no choice.
"I know that my mom and her friends at the retirement community needed masks in order go in or leave or anything they needed a mask and no one had them," said Anderson
Grocery stores still top the list of complaints to the Attorney General.
One shopper at a Walmart in Fort Worth complained, "They are charging $16 & $20 for toilet paper that should be no more than $6 or so."
Walmart responded by email saying it is actively monitoring prices in stores and online and takes these matters seriously...AND..."has a pricing tool it uses to identify potential price gouging..."
A customer at an El Rancho supermarket in Dallas complained about the cost of eggs saying, “They are double of the original price before COVID-19."
El Rancho did not directly answer NBC 5’s questions about egg price complaints but directed us to a recent company news release which says, "Given the fluctuation of supplier costs we continue to offer the lowest prices on the market."
Texans who believe they have encountered price gouging can call the Office of the Attorney General’s toll-free complaint line at (800) 621-0508 or file a complaint online.
*Map locations are approximate, central locations for the city and are not meant to indicate where actual infected people live.