SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – After receiving multiple reports of price gouging of essential items during a temporary shortage in stores due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Utah Attorney General’s Office issued a warning and reminder that this type of conduct is illegal during an emergency and could result in a $1,000 fine per incident.

Layton parents Chuck and Heather Vilela said they were impacted by the shortages caused by shoppers who were stockpiling essential items. They needed pain medication for their daughter, Maycey who had an ear infection Sunday.

“My husband went out to check and he went to five different stores to try and find some. He was unable to do it, so I had texted a couple of neighbors. I finally was able to get some to borrow in the meantime until we could find some,” said Heather Vilela.

Clearfield mother Katilyn Smith found herself in a similar situation over the weekend, searching for diapers at multiple stores.

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“Simple things like diapers, wipes, milk, and eggs that I can usually just go to the store and get with no hassle whatsoever…has become like a hunt for a needle in a haystack. It’s really hard right now,” said Smith. “The issue is I work all day and by the time I am able to go to the store, they’re usually gone. That’s been my main focus right now is what my kids need.”

Smith turned to online classifieds such as Facebook Marketplace and found listings that inflated prices for what she needed.

“I thought that maybe someone had extra diapers stocked that their kids don’t fit anymore and they might be giving away. But then I saw that somebody was selling a box of diapers for $40,” she said. “That’s really upsetting and stressful that people are going out and bulk-buying all this stuff to price gouge people. I’m more than willing and able to pay for my kids’ essential needs, but I can’t because it’s all gone.”

The Vilelas explained that individuals stockpiling and price gouging may not realize the impact their actions may have on families struggling to make ends meet.

“There’s definitely people taking advantage of the situation and looking at this as more of a business opportunity as opposed to helping themselves and potentially helping other people. It’s sad, terrible, and to me, it’s inhumane,” they said. “It leaves families that only live paycheck to paycheck in a crisis. We don’t need to eat, but our children do. So when someone goes out on a Friday when they get paid after they’ve worked hard and there’s nothing, it’s very disappointing.”

Over the weekend, a social media post showing a West Jordan woman selling a pack of Costco toilet paper for $150 paired with a photo of toilet paper stockpiled in a driveway went viral. ABC4 News spoke with this woman on Monday, who said the original ad was “a joke” and that the house pictured with the piles of toilet paper was not hers. She declined an on-camera interview.

“That makes me upset because things like that are not funny. It’s not a joke. There’s parents out here that are really stressed out that our kids don’t have diapers. They don’t have wipes. We don’t have toilet paper. It’s just not something to joke about,” said Smith.

‘We believe in the spirit of sarcasm in times like this. You have to laugh and we’ve seen some funny things on social media. But if you’re going to joke about that stuff, make it known beforehand. To other people right now, it’s a serious situation, we think you’re being for real or you’re trying to hide the fact that you’re capitalizing on the situation,” said Chuck Vilela.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office and the Division of Consumer Protection said items such as baby formula, medicine, toilet paper, bottled water, batteries, hand sanitizer, filtering masks, etc. are among the most common items that are marked up.

In a press release, officials noted Governor Gary Herbert had declared a state of emergency in Utah and reminded the public that during emergencies, excessive price inflation is against the law, specifically the Price Controls Under Emergencies Act. Each incident or offense could result in a $1,000 fine.

“We hope this warning gives offenders a chance to do the right thing and stop the activity,” said Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes in the press release. “But if they don’t, they are in danger of state enforcement. Taking advantage of this tragedy for the sake of profit is NOT acceptable.”

Reports can be made with the Utah Attorney General’s Office at 801-366-0260 or the Division of Consumer Protection at 801-530-6601 or 1-800-721-7233.

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