The sign at City Beverage in Portland on March 14.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office says it is receiving a steady stream of complaints related to the coronavirus.

The office’s Consumer Protection Division has received 194 coronavirus-related complaints since the outbreak reached Maine, including 83 about price gouging, according to the state. The office said it could not provide data showing how many price-gouging complaints it gets in a typical week, so it is impossible to say whether it’s on the rise.

The division received a total of 74 complaints last week alone, including 25 reports of suspected price gouging, said spokesman Marc Malon. He said not all of the complaints had merit.

“It’s important to point out that many of the complaints were determined to have no merit and were perhaps based on hearsay and rumor,” Malon said. “In ones that appeared to have merit, all were resolved by voluntary compliance.”

Price gouging amid the coronavirus pandemic has been a concern worldwide. Online storefronts such as Amazon and eBay have taken action against scammers. The New York Times reported that a Tennessee man stockpiled more than 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer that he planned to sell online, before the crackdown.

Forty states plus the District of Columbia have laws against price-gouging, according to the National Attorneys General Training and Research Institute. Attorneys general in Michigan, New York, Missouri and Washington D.C. have issued cease-and-desist orders for price gouging and selling fake coronavirus treatments.

On Saturday, 34 attorneys general, including Maine’s Aaron Frey, sent letters urging online sales platforms Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, Facebook and Walmart to take action to stop price gouging and work with state and territorial attorneys general to enforce price gouging laws during the coronavirus pandemic.

Malon said he could not provide additional information requested by the Press Herald, including the number of complaints deemed to have merit and examples of prices allegedly being charged for certain products. He did not respond to a request for more information about the other coronavirus-related complaints the office has received.

Gov. Janet Mills issued a declaration on March 17 aimed at preventing people from selling essential products at “unconscionable prices.” The order prohibits paper products, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, personal hygiene products, medicine, medical supplies, food and water from being sold for more than 15 percent of the price of the goods and services immediately prior to the disruption caused by the coronavirus.

“The coronavirus is already making life difficult enough without bad actors trying to take advantage of Maine people by inflating prices for critical items,” Mills said in a written statement announcing the declaration. “With allegations of price-gouging in our state rising, this declaration gives the Office of the Attorney General full authority to investigate price gouging claims and take swift action to address them.”

Frey said the coronavirus has caused an unprecedented market disruption, so he could not compare the current number of price-gouging complaints to the number it normally receives.

“I don’t have a number for you, because the context just isn’t there,” Frey said. 

Of the 25 price-gouging complaints received from March 22-28, nine involved toilet paper, which has been in short supply since the coronavirus hit the state. The office received three complaints about food prices, two complaints each about water, hand sanitizer, masks, cleaning products and heating fuel, and one complaint about gas.

Frey said he could not provide specific examples of price-gouging complaints the office has received, because he didn’t want to establish an arbitrary standard that would discourage people from calling. He said people should trust their instincts and report any prices that seem abnormally high to them.

“If there’s evidence to suggest the price is high and it’s high in relationship with this crisis, call us up and we can get to the bottom of it,” Frey said. “People will have an inherent sense about whether they’re being taken advantage of.”

Such evidence appeared to be present in an Old Port convenience store. City Beverage was selling rolls of toilet paper for $10 each on March 14. The store displayed a sign saying, “No, (it’s) not a joke.”

Neither Frey nor Malon would confirm whether the Attorney General’s Office investigated that business. But Malon said that so far, all legitimate complaints have been addressed without legal action.

“We cannot provide the source of complaints and business names,” Malon said. “And in this case there was voluntary compliance so no legal action was needed.”

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