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2,065 complaints, zero provincial fines: Pandemic price-gouging in B.C. by the numbers
VANCOUVER -- During the tense first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of B.C. businesses were accused of jacking up prices to take advantage of panicked shoppers – and new data reveals just how many of those complaints were found to be substantiated.
Records from Consumer Protection B.C. that were obtained through a joint investigation by CTV News and Bob Mackin of TheBreaker.news show the regulator received some 2,065 price-gouging complaints between March 1 and May 14.
In some cases, a single business prompted a cluster of complaints over one questionably priced item, such as industrial-sized rolls of toilet paper that were sold for $10 apiece. Another store received a rash of complaints for opening packages of regular toilet paper and selling individual rolls for $2.49.
Altogether, those 2,065 complaints led to 357 investigations, all of which were launched after the provincial government introduced its $2,000 fine for businesses exploiting the crisis on April 19.
The vast majority of investigations – 256 of the 357 – were determined to be "unfounded." Perceptions of price-gouging were often mistaken, with some businesses merely passing on the inflated costs they faced due to a sudden spike in global demand.
Another 25 complaints were resolved when the businesses voluntarily "corrected the existence of price-gouging when it was brought to their attention," according to a summary of the data provided by Consumer Protection B.C.
After being told that it was selling hand sanitizer for more than other stores at $20.99 per 500 ml bottle, one Chilliwack business volunteered to sell the remaining stock at cost.
Consumer Protection B.C. was not given the power to dish out the province's steep $2,000 fines, so the regulator forwarded 45 cases – about 13 per cent of those investigated – to the government for review and potential enforcement.
But two months after the fine was announced by the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, the province hasn't dinged any businesses for hiking prices in the midst of a pandemic.
Minister Mike Farnworth told CTV News that the government always intended to use an education-focused approach to keeping prices of essential goods fair and reasonable.
"We made it clear right from the very beginning," Farnworth said. "What we want to do is educate."
There are still potential consequences for business owners who flout the rules, Farnworth added, and some people have been fined at the local level by bylaw officers.
The ministry could not provide any hard numbers on how many tickets have been handed out by local authorities so far.
Consumer Protection B.C.'s inspectors are capable of issuing penalties in the tens of thousands of dollars for violating the Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act and provincial other regulations, and it's unclear why the regulatory body was not given the ability to impose price-gouging fines as well.
Businesses defend pandemic price hikes
In some cases, upset customers were apparently enough to convince store owners to reverse course.
Selling individual rolls of toilet paper for $2.49 a piece prompted no less than 10 complaints against Young Street Market in Chilliwack back in March.
"We used to be loyal customers, but now you have lost our business," one complainant wrote.
But the owner, Mohit Sukhija, told CTV News he only raised his usual prices by 49 cents per roll because supply at Costco was limited and he was spending a lot of time waiting to get inside.
"To me, it was not as big a deal as it's been made," Sukhija said, adding that he quickly and voluntarily stopped selling the single rolls altogether. "I have to live in this same community, right? Can't make 'em mad."
The South Surrey Chevron gas station on 176th Street and 8th Avenue was the subject of nine complaints for selling toilet paper rolls for $10 each. One complainant wrote that the manager claimed to be "doing the community a favour."
In fairness, the toilet paper being sold was industrial-sized, of the kind normally seen in gas station restrooms. Packs of 12 rolls of a similar size were listed on the Walmart website for $27.50 on Monday, which comes to about $2.30 per roll.
Parkland Fuel Corporation, which owns the Chevron station, was quick to offer refunds to people who purchased the toilet paper. In a statement, the company said "the retailers acted out of bad judgment and against our company values."
The complaints against both businesses came in, and were apparently addressed, before Consumer Protection B.C. began investigating price-gouging complaints in mid-April. Neither Young Street Market nor the South Surrey Chevron was investigated.
The fact that more than 2,000 complaints were lodged in the first months of the pandemic and only a few dozen companies were found to be unfairly hiking prices suggests there was "a lot of confusion in the marketplace," according to a spokesperson for the regulator.
Tatiana Chabeaux-Smith said that prices for certain items increased across the board for a variety of reasons, but that investigators were and remain focused on businesses caught selling the same or similar items as their competitors for significantly more money.
"A lot of people saw prices go up and that was worrying to them," Tatiana Chabeaux-Smith told CTV News. "What we're really looking for is outliers."
The process is ongoing and more investigations are still underway. Another seven cases have also been handed off to the Ministry of Public Safety since mid-May, for a total of 52.
Watch CTV News at Six on Tuesday and Wednesday for more on this two-part series on price-gouging complaints and concerns over the government's response.
Read Part 2: Why hasn't B.C. fined any pandemic price-gougers?