The competition watchdog is considering asking the government to regulate prices of hand sanitiser and other protective kit relating to the coronavirus amid concern that businesses and individuals are cashing in on fears of shortages.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it was monitoring reports of price rises and other changes in sales practices during the outbreak and wanted to “ensure that traders do not exploit the current situation to take advantage of people”.
The regulator said would take “direct enforcement action” against any companies that had broken competition or consumer protection law by, for example, by “charging excessive prices or making misleading claims about the efficacy of protective equipment”. In the past the CMA has taken such action against misleading tactics by hotel booking sites.
It is also assessing whether to advise the government to consider taking direct action to regulate prices.
The CMA’s chief executive, Andrea Coscelli, said: “We urge retailers to behave responsibly throughout the coronavirus outbreak and not to make misleading claims or charge vastly inflated prices. We also remind members of the public that these obligations may apply to them too if they resell goods, for example on online marketplaces.”
With some products, particularly hand sanitiser and other anti-bacterial products, sold out or being rationed in some stores, shoppers have turned to online retailers.
Last week Amazon admitted it was struggling to prevent profiteering as “bad actors” attempt to cash in on coronavirus fears by raising prices of masks and sanitisers by as much as 2,000%.
The US company said it had removed “tens of thousands” of listings. Other websites including eBay, Walmart and Etsy have also struggled to limit profiteering by sellers.
Analysts have likened the situation to a game of whack-a-mole, with products reappearing soon after deletion.
The CMA’s chairman, Lord Tyrie, said: “We will do whatever we can to act against rip-offs and misleading claims, using any or all of our tools; and where we can’t act, we’ll advise government on further steps they could take, if necessary.”