Online shopping sites are scrambling to stiffen regulations against attempts to profit off the COVID-19 crisis by banning price-gouging for face masks, disinfectants and other items in high demand amid the epidemic.
Prominent companies like Amazon Japan, Rakuten Inc. and Mercari Inc. are ramping up such efforts amid allegations that sought-after items are being auctioned off at prices sometimes 10 or 15 times higher than usual, according to NHK.
Price-gouging to exploit the epidemic is so prevalent that even the government is weighing in. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is reportedly looking to compile measures meant to ease the mask shortage, such as by outlawing hoarding and resales online. Violators would reportedly face penalties.
“We’re fast considering what legally binding measures we can possibly implement against those who are purchasing (masks) in bulk for the purpose of resale,” Abe told the Diet on Wednesday.
The profiteering is not peculiar to Japan. In a statement earlier this week, Amazon.com said it was “disappointed that bad actors are attempting to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis,” and acknowledged it has recently blocked or taken down “tens of thousands” of such offers.
Amazon Japan spokesperson Yayoi Kondo said Amazon.co.jp was “taking measures in line with the statement.”
Mercari, one of the most popular online flea market operators in Japan, said it is scrutinizing sellers of masks, hand sanitizers, toilet paper and other items in high demand, and removing those deemed to have deviated from “social norms.”
“We will consider articles auctioned off at an outrageously high price to be subject to our removal policy,” Mercari said in a statement Tuesday.
The increasingly stringent measures are being rolled out in response to government and online campaigns urging immediate action.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, for one, released a statement last week effectively calling on online stores to prohibit the auctioning of masks and disinfectants “for the time being” from March 14.
METI said its request was meant to “prevent these goods from being purchased in bulk for the purpose of resale” and help alleviate the resulting shortages in the market.
A campaign is also underway on petition platform Change.org urging flea market websites to ban the auctioning of masks.
Shizuoka Prefecture resident Ryo Suzuki, chief organizer of the campaign, said he initiated the movement because he believes the hoarding and price-gouging is likely contributing to the shortages at stores, which is in turn putting at risk those who really need them.
A case in point, Suzuki said, is his sibling, who has diabetes, a condition that may put patients at “greater risk of complications” when infected with COVID-19, according to the American Diabetes Association.
“I think the resale of masks on those websites is creating a situation where those who don’t really need them are in possession of a whole bunch of them, whereas those who really do need them are left without,” Suzuki said.
The crackdown online has resulted in exorbitantly priced masks all but disappearing from some websites, such as Mercari. But there’s speculation growing on social media that the resellers have moved en masse to Yahoo Auction instead to dispose of the piles of masks they’re now stuck with. As of Thursday morning, masks were being auctioned in packages of hundreds or even thousands on Yahoo Auction.
A statement on Yahoo Auction’s website Wednesday said it would start banning such auctions on March 14 in accordance with METI’s request.
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