Price gouging is up over the past week as communities across North America react to the outbreak of COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus strain.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has seen an increase in complaints from consumers about price gouging for critical items such as bottled water, hand sanitizer, face masks and food supplies as “social distancing” restrictions go to effect in many locations. Consumers are urged to report price gouging at BBB.org/AdTruth. The nonprofit organization says it will follow up with companies that have inflated prices in the wake of the crisis and will work with attorneys general and other appropriate agencies to address particularly egregious cases.
Although the legal definition of price gouging varies by jurisdiction, raising prices to an unreasonable extent beyond a business’ own increased costs is a violation of the BBB Standards for Trust, which encourages businesses to build trust through honesty, transparency and integrity. The BBB suggests business owners and managers use its Standards for Trust as best practices for operating under the current restrictions (BBB.org/Standards-for-Trust).
The BBB adapted it standards for marketplace trust to the coronavirus pandemic:
- Build Trust — Refrain from taking unfair advantage of a public emergency such as the coronavirus situation. As much as possible, keep prices at a reasonable level. Consider your daily operations as business-as-usual but with the adjustments required to help prevent the virus from spreading.
- Advertise Honestly — Do not fuel fears. More than anything, you need to act as a calming and reassuring partner to your customers. Continue with standard ethical advertising practices but add a reference that you’re following public health protocols to stem the transmission of the virus.
- Tell the Truth — The virus may impact deliverables. Be honest with your customers regarding timelines and product availability. Set realistic expectations if your delivery or service is impacted by illness or precautions. Set clear expectations with your customers. They will respect that you are thinking about them and taking this seriously.
- Be Transparent/Honor Promises — If you are unable to fulfill commitments, communicate immediately with your customers, rather than disappointing them and having to rationalize the reasons after the fact. Work with your customers to find solutions.
- Be Responsive/Embody Integrity — Demonstrate purpose and support for your community. Businesses can play a vital role in maintaining strong communities, even in challenging times.
Advice for consumers wishing to contribute to charities
To help contributors make their own wise giving decisions to charities addressing the coronavirus outbreak, BBB Wise Giving Alliance suggests that donors keep the following tips in mind:
- It is best to consider experienced relief organizations. New charities may have the best of intentions but may face great challenges in fulfilling promises in another country.
- Verify the trustworthiness of soliciting relief organizations by visiting Give.org to access free reports that specify if the charity meets the 20 BBB Standards for Charity Accountability.
- See if the charity has existing connections to be able to deliver aid to impacted areas. Without well-established connections, it may be difficult to provide assistance quickly and effectively.
- Some charities may be raising money to pass along to other relief organizations. If so, you may want to consider “avoiding the middleman” and give directly to charities that either have a presence in the region or an established connection.
- See if the charity’s appeal clearly describes the intended use of funds. Watch out for vague solicitations that promise assistance to those in need but don’t explain how it will be carried out.
- Understand crowdfunding. While there are resources like Give.org to help vet charities, it can be difficult to vet individuals. If you decide to contribute to an individual via crowdfunding, it is safest to give to people you personally know. Also, if a charity is raising money using a crowdfunding posting, see the advice noted above. Be particularly cautious of hazy requests that are not clear about the nature of support that will be provided. Also review the site’s instructions to find out about any fees, how quickly funds will be disbursed and other matters of potential importance.
Scam Alert: “Mandatory” COVID-19 test texts are a scam
The coronavirus outbreak has been big business for scammers. First it was fake masks, then fake government grants, and now it’s a fake COVID-19 test. In the past few days, BBB Scam Tracker (BBB.org/ScamTracker) has gotten numerous reports of phony text messages claiming to be from a government agency.
How the scam works: You get a text message that looks like it comes from the U.S. government. Current reports say that scammers are impersonating the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but they are unlikely to stop there. The message tells you that you must take a “mandatory online COVID-19 test” and has a link to a website. But there is no online test for coronavirus!
Tips to spot a COVID-19 text message scam:
- Government agencies do not typically communicate through text messages.
- Ignore instructions to text “STOP” or “NO” to prevent future texts. This is a common ploy by scammers to confirm they have a real, active phone number.
- If you think your text message is real, be sure it’s directing to a web address like “agency.gov” or “agency.ca,” not “agency.otherwebsite.com.”
- Check for look-alikes. Be sure to do your research and see if a government agency or organization actually exists. Find contact info on your own and call them to be sure the person you’ve heard from is legitimate.
For more information, see BBB.org/Coronavirus
Jordan Rzad is the Senior Director of Internet Marketing at the Houston BBB. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.