New York Attorney General Letitia James today sent a letter to counsel for Craigslist.com, calling on the company to immediately remove posts that attempt to unlawfully and fraudulently profit off consumers’ fears around the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Multiple posts in recent days have attempted to sell fake items that purportedly claim to provide “immunity” to the coronavirus or allow individuals to test for the disease, while others have sought to exorbitantly charge consumers for items like hand sanitizer.
“Consumers go on Craigslist every day looking for values, but these items only aim to cheat consumers and profit off their fears surrounding the coronavirus,” said Attorney General James. “These fake products have no place in the marketplace or on a site that consumers trust for every day purchases. We’re demanding that Craigslist remove these posts immediately and ensure the company has policies in place to stop scammers from taking advantage of vulnerable and panicked consumers. My office will not hesitate to take action against all those who use the coronavirus as a get-rich-quick scheme at a consumer’s expense.”
Attorney General James ordered Craigslist to remove postings where users have attempted to sell a number of fake items, including fake “immunity pack[s]” that, in reality have no basis to the claims that it will help protect consumers from contracting or fighting the coronavirus. There is currently no Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved vaccine to prevent the disease or treatment to cure it, and the World Health Organization has also said that there is no specific medicine to prevent or treat the coronavirus.
Additionally, a number of ads claim to sell products — including coronavirus “testing kits,” “protect[ive]” kits, and “N94” masks — which fraudulently claim to test for the disease and offer protection against it. The images of these fake test kits have been stolen from different government and private websites, and there has been no evidence of an N94 mask ever existing.
The letter also ordered Craigslist to remove posts that are in clear violation of New York’s price gouging law by attempting to sell, for example, a 1,200 ml bottle of Purell for the exorbitant price of $222.
Finally, the letter demanded that Craigslist provide the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) with information with respect to all proactive efforts the company is taking or planning to take to detect and remove similarly fraudulent, deceptive, or misleading postings on its platform related to the coronavirus.
Deceptive advertisements violate numerous New York laws, including General Business Law § 349 and Executive Law § 63(12). The OAG is also authorized to bring suit to enjoin any illegal acts and practices, including violations of the New York State price gouging law — GBL § 396-r — which provides for a civil penalty not to exceed $25,000 and, where appropriate, restitution for aggrieved consumers.
Separately, in an effort to support New Yorkers in the fight against the coronavirus, Attorney General James has already sent multiple cease and desist letters to individuals and companies selling and marketing certain products as treatments or cures for the coronavirus, including Alex Jones, The Silver Edge company, Dr. Sherrill Sellman, televangelist Jim Bakker, and others.
Additionally, Attorney General James has issued cease and desist notifications to multiple businesses in New York for charging excessive prices for hand sanitizers, disinfectant sprays, and rubbing alcohol — a violation of New York’s price gouging statute. That statute prohibits the sale of goods and services necessary for the health, safety, and welfare of consumers at unconscionably excessive prices during any abnormal disruption of the market.
The OAG continues to surveil and monitor businesses across the state for potential scams and price gouging schemes designed to exploit public concern related to the spread of the coronavirus. Scammers commonly exploit real public health concerns and use heightened public fear to prey on consumers and profit from frauds related to those health fears. If a consumer believes they have been the victim of a scam or have witnessed potential price gouging, they can report these incidents to the OAG.
Earlier this week, Attorney General James also announced that the OAG will temporarily halt the collection of medical and student debt owed to the State of New York and referred to the Office of the Attorney General for collection, for at least a 30-day period between March 16, 2020 through April 15, 2020, in response to growing financial impairments resulting from the spread of the coronavirus. Countless New Yorkers have been impacted — directly or indirectly — by the spread of COVID-19, forcing them to forgo income and business. After this 30-day period, the OAG will reassess the needs of state residents for a possible extension. Additionally, the OAG will accept applications for suspension of all other types of debt owed to the State of New York and referred to the OAG for collection.