SANTA ANA, Calif. – As the State of California and the County of Orange continue to respond to the ongoing threat posed by the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer warned business owners and scam artists that they will be criminally prosecuted if they engage in price gouging.
During a declared state of emergency, it is illegal for a business to increase its prices for essential goods or services by more than 10 percent, unless they can show their own costs have increased.
Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in California on March 4, 2020, and the Orange County Board of Supervisors declared a local emergency on February 26, 2020.
“The Orange County District Attorney’s Office will vigorously enforce price gouging laws in order to protect Orange County residents from any unscrupulous attempt to illegally profit from the coronavirus threat,” said Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer. “While I understand this situation has created a lot of uncertainty, exploiting the public’s panic is not a defense to engaging in criminal activity. We will get past this at some point and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office will ensure that there will be accountability for those who break the law and prey on vulnerable victims.”
Violations of the price gouging statute are subject to criminal prosecution and can result in one year in county jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000. Violations are also subject to civil enforcement actions including civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, injunctive relief and mandatory restitution.
The law applies to several products and necessities including: food and drink (including food and drink for animals); emergency supplies such as water, flashlights, radios, batteries, candles, blankets, soaps, diapers, toiletries; and medical supplies such as prescription and nonprescription medications, bandages, gauze, isopropyl alcohol, and antibacterial products.
It is also a misdemeanor for a hotel or motel to increase regular rates by more than 10 percent during a declared emergency and for the 30 days following the state of emergency.
In addition to price gouging, consumers should be on the lookout for other types of scams that are common during emergencies. Criminals may set up fake websites or charities, send emails, texts or post on social media pretending to be from the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an attempt to profit illegally. They may also seek donations to help victims of this emergency. Also, be wary of any business claiming to have a miracle cure. There is currently no cure for the coronavirus. Do not allow your fear or anxiety to overtake your common sense.
You can report suspected price gouging or other attempts to profit from the threat posed by COVID-19 to the District Attorney’s Consumer Protection Unit by submitting an Online Complaint Form found at www.orangecountyda.org or to the California Attorney General’s Office.