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Pandemic price gouging can result in fines and arrest

Protecting consumers from scams

OW Staff Writer | 3/20/2020, midnight

Warning members of the public to beware of misinformation, price gouging and scams connected to the coronavirus pandemic, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer and LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced the creation of a Joint Coronavirus Task Force and detailed multiple efforts to stop illegal and dangerous practices.

“We're fighting to protect an anxious and uncertain public from price-gouging, online scams and misinformation,” said Feuer. “My office is investigating traditional stores and online retailers, uncovering unsubstantiated advertising claims about alleged coronavirus prevention, treatment, and cures, and investigating safety products—such as protective masks—that may not perform as advertised, as well as products being sold at astronomical prices. And we're taking action. If you're a victim, please contact our office.”

The L.A. County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs and L.A. County Counsel are also participating in the task force.

“As prosecutors, we see first-hand how consumer fraud can infringe on our sense of security, shatter our trust and endanger our well-being,” Lacey said. “The consequences of today's scams are more than just financial. These frauds may affect our health and the health of those around us. Unfortunately, every one of us is at risk of being duped by one of these scams.”

In its first effort to protect consumers from coronavirus scams, the City Attorney's Office announced immediate success in removing internet advertising making alleged false claims about coronavirus prevention and treatment. Attorneys from Feuer's Office discovered alleged false advertising from the Los Angeles-area company CEN Group LLC via its website,www.safebabyhealthychild.com, which markets and sells vitamin supplements and claimed, among other alleged false claims, that vitamin C is a “safe and proven treatment” that “can protect against coronavirus,” that “[p]eople are dying needlessly of coronavirus,” that “high doses of vitamins, especially Vitamin C, can be used to address the coronavirus outbreak”, and that “the coronavirus can be dramatically slowed or stopped completely with the immediate widespread use of high doses of vitamin C.”

The F.D.A. and F.T.C. have recently warned that there are currently no vaccines or drugs approved to treat the coronavirus, and the National Institute of Health has also cautioned that “alternative” treatments-such as high doses of vitamins A, C and D also do nothing to protect from the virus and are ineffective against Covid-19-and can in fact be harmful.

Feuer's Office, concerned that the advertising claims related to Vitamin C as a treatment for coronavirus might induce consumers to ignore bona fide recommended precautions, such as vigilant hand-washing and social distancing, contacted the company. In response, CEN Group LLC immediately agreed to remove these claims from its website.

Consumers must also be alerted to price gouging laws, which are triggered whenever a federal, state, or local state of emergency has been declared, as it was on March 4, in LA County in connection with coronavirus.

Under the law, for 30 days following the emergency declaration, it is unlawful for any consumer good, food or service to be sold, or offered for sale, at a price higher than 10 percent more than it was sold, or offered for sale, prior to the emergency declaration. This includes medical supplies and any items purchased online and delivered to Los Angeles.