Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order on Friday barring price gouging during the COVID-19 pandemic comes amid a flurry of complaints nationwide about scams and soaring prices for essential needs for protection against the corona­virus.

State Attorney General Keith Ellison said his office received more than 150 reports of price gouging as of mid-Friday. His office has now deployed a 23-person consumer protection unit to investigate an upsurge in claims for miracle cures and suspected links to malware and price gouging on products like hand sanitizer, face masks and rice.

“The attorney general forecasted ... that while the vast majority of people’s basic human nature and decency would come through, there would be a few of those who would try and prey on people, especially the vulnerable, at a time of disruption,” Walz said.

Walz added that he’s seen hand sanitizer “averaged for $60 a bottle” and pitches hawking $1 squirts. “These things are real,” he said. “That’s not who we are. Many of them can come from out of state and this gives the state and attorney general the ability to crack down.”

His executive order takes effect at 5 p.m. Saturday prohibiting the sale of essential goods at “an unconscionably excessive price” of 20% or more than their cost before the coronavirus emergency. Violations could result in fines of up to a $10,000.

With Walz and Ellison urging the Legislature to take action, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said lawmakers are working to include price gouging legislation in a package of bills responding to the pandemic. State Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, said he introduced a measure to ban price gouging in Minnesota after hearing from constituents about staples such as rice selling for as much as 200% higher than usual.

Stores, including Wisconsin-based Menards, have come under fire for doubling the price of household items like bleach and selling respirator masks at up to $40 per pair — more than four times what has been advertised elsewhere.

An Associated Press survey of attorneys general and consumer protection agencies this week found more than 5,000 reports, with hundreds more coming daily. On Thursday, the Justice Department ordered U.S. attorneys across the country to appoint special coronavirus fraud coordinators. Federal officials also activated a central fraud hotline at 1-866-720-5721.

Erica MacDonald, U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said Friday that she designated her chief of economic crimes to be the point of contact for all incoming reports of COVID-19-related fraud scams.

Attorneys general around the country have seen emerging scams taking advantage of news reports that the federal government is considering payments of up to $1,200 to many Americans, according to a spokesman for Ellison’s office. People are reporting fraudulent text messages made to look like “cash app” links that falsely say they are from the government, as well as deceptive — and sometimes threatening — e-mails and robocalls suffused with malware links demanding money or asking for names and Social Security numbers they claim are needed to receive their government checks.

Ellison is recommending Minnesotans not click on links in e-mails or elsewhere on the chance that they may contain malicious software. Officials also warn against seeking updates on the disease from nongovernment sources such as “suspect e-mails, sketchy websites, or social media posts from unknown origins.”

Ellison’s office also is investigating reports of Minnesotans receiving e-mails purporting to offer “miracle cures” or access to respirator masks and COVID-19 testing kits — both of which are in short supply nationwide.

This week, state lawmakers all received an e-mail titled “I have COVID-19 Test Kits + N95 Mask/PPE Supplies — PLEASE FORWARD.” The message linked to a Google Forms page for a purported medical device company promising to create “a bridge between what your state needs and what we have/can procure.”

At least one Minnesota lawmaker, Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, tweeted a link to the site, but it was soon flagged by House DFL staff as a scam. Franson did not respond to requests for comment.

Walz’s order defines essential goods or services as those necessary for “the health, safety and welfare of the public,” such as food, water, fuel, housing, health care goods, medical supplies and personal hygiene, sanitation and cleaning goods.

Beyond that, Ellison said he is pushing lawmakers to codify anti-gouging measures into law, as 30 other states do.

“I’m hoping that we just we really put some law in place regarding the anti-price gouging, hoping that the fact that it’s not lawful to do is enough to get people to not do it,” Ellison said.


Twitter: @smontemayor