For Immediate ReleaseMarch 08, 2022
Supervisors hear findings from Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures
San Rafael, CA – When it comes to consumerism, one positive result of the pandemic is increased awareness of price gouging. Last year, one Marin County pharmacy had COVID-19 take-home tests priced much higher than competing stores, and shoppers alerted the Marin County Department of Agriculture / Weights and Measures (AWMs).
AWMs Inspector Raoul Wertz said the COVID-19-related executive order from Governor Gavin Newsom that prohibited sharply increased pricing during or after an emergency expired in September 2020. Earlier in 2020, AWMs established a new working relationship with the District Attorney’s fraud division back when there were rushes on particular goods at local stores. Starting in April 2020, the executive order prohibited businesses from pricing items with more than a 10% price increase from what it was charging two months earlier. That included emergency and medical supplies such as face coverings.
Consumer pricing complaints jumped 40% over the previous year, but since the executive order expired, it hasn’t been illegal to price items higher than competitors.
“We didn’t get the referrals from the DA as much as we did earlier in the pandemic, but we still got gouging-related complaints from the public,” Wertz said. “It’s mostly opinion about where those COVID-19 tests should’ve been priced. We’re back to what the market will bear. People having lived that experience of the previous spring and witnessing the inflated prices has them on high alert.”
The new 2021 Marin County Consumer Protection Report, presented to the Marin County Board of Supervisors on March 8, shows a decline in overcharging frequency during the fiscal year between July 2020 and June 2021. It went from 4.1% of investigated cases in the 2020 report to 3.1%. However, businesses that passed their price accuracy inspections fell by 14%. The full report is online in English and Spanish, and all past reports are archived.
“Our department encourages all consumers to shop with care, pay attention to posted prices and promotional offers, and to always retain and check their receipts to ensure they pay the correct price for merchandise and services they purchase,” said AWMs Director Stefan Parnay.
There were 150 notices of violation issued in the 2020-21 fiscal year to 107 local businesses. When AWMs inspectors find violations, businesses receive a notice of violation. The department’s goal is to gain compliance through education and outreach, but there would likely be a fine if the violation is egregious or the business has repeatedly received the same type of violations.
This marked the sixth consecutive year the AWMs staff produced a Consumer Protection Report. The department’s weights and measures inspection staff has only 2.7 full-time positions, but the team spent 4,353 hours conducting 6,449 inspections at 307 businesses to ensure accuracy of measuring devices and store prices. The number of inspections is down almost 2,000 over the previous year because of pandemic working conditions.
“We focused on consumer complaints and investigated them as we always do, but we did postpone some routine inspections as we scaled back our ability to conduct field work,” Wertz said. “That might explain why there was a significant drop in businesses passing our price accuracy inspections.”
Agriculture, Weights and Measures maintains a consumer help line at (415) 473-7888. If a consumer believes he or she has been overcharged, becomes aware of posted prices not being honored at the checkout stand, or is unable to view the prices of items when a purchase is being rung up, please call the help line immediately so staff can investigate.
Want to watch out for yourself and others more closely? There are helpful consumer tips on the Ag, Weights & Measures website.
Stefan ParnayCommissioner/DirectorDepartment of Agriculture, Weights and Measures
1682 Novato Blvd.Suite 150-ANovato, CA 94947(415) 473-6700Email: Stefan ParnayAWM website