Selfish Scalpers Buy Up All Medical Supplies to Resell Them at Exorbitant Profits Amidst Coronavirus Epidemic

Has 17,700 Bottles of Hand Sanitizer and Nowhere to Sell Them

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a person standing in front of a store: An Amazon merchant, Matt Colvin, with an overflow stock of cleaning and sanitizing supplies in his garage in Hixon, Tenn.Previous SlideNext SlideFull screen 1/4 SLIDES © Doug Strickland for The New York Times An Amazon merchant, Matt Colvin, with an overflow stock of cleaning and sanitizing supplies in his garage in Hixon, Tenn. 2/4 SLIDES© Doug Strickland for The New York Times Mr. Colvin with his wife, Brittany, and son, Logan. 3/4 SLIDES© Doug Strickland for The New York Times Hand sanitizer that Mr. Colvin is keeping in a storage locker. 4/4 SLIDES© Doug Strickland for The New York Times Noah Colvin, Mr. Colvin’s brother, moving boxes of hand sanitizer from his brother’s storage locker on Thursday. 4/4 SLIDES

On March 1, the day after the first coronavirus death in the United States, brothers Matt and Noah Colvin set out in a silver S.U.V. to pick up some hand sanitizer. Driving around Chattanooga, Tenn., they hit a Dollar Tree, then a Walmart, a Staples and a Home Depot. At each store, they cleaned out the shelves.

Over the next three days, Noah Colvin took a 1,300-mile road trip across Tennessee and into Kentucky, filling a U-Haul truck with thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and thousands of packs of antibacterial wipes, mostly from “little hole-in-the-wall dollar stores in the backwoods,” his brother said. “The major metro areas were cleaned out.”

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Matt Colvin stayed home near Chattanooga, preparing for pallets of even more wipes and sanitizer he had ordered, and starting to list them on Amazon. Mr. Colvin said he had posted 300 bottles of hand sanitizer and immediately sold them all for between $8 and $70 each, multiples higher than what he had bought them for. To him, “it was crazy money.” To many others, it was profiteering from a pandemic.

The next day, Amazon pulled his items and thousands of other listings for sanitizer, wipes and face masks. The company suspended some of the sellers behind the listings and warned many others that if they kept running up prices, they’d lose their accounts. EBay soon followed with even stricter measures, prohibiting any U.S. sales of masks or sanitizer.

Now, while millions of people across the country search in vain for hand sanitizer to protect themselves from the spread of the coronavirus, Mr. Colvin is sitting on 17,700 bottles of the stuff with little idea where to sell them.

“It’s been a huge amount of whiplash,” he said. “From being in a situation where what I’ve got coming and going could potentially put my family in a really good place financially to ‘What the heck am I going to do with all of this?’”

Slide 1 of 50: Dr. Debbie Birx, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator speaks as US President Donald Trump (R) and other members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force listen at a press conference on COVID-19, known as the coronavirus, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, March 13, 2020. – US President Donald Trump declared the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, a national emergency on March 13, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo byPrevious SlideNext SlideFull screen 1/50 SLIDES © Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The world is battling an outbreak of a new coronavirus called COVID-19, which started in the city of Wuhan, China, and has been spreading since. The virus has claimed over 4,000 lives and infected more than 100,000 people around the world. The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11.Dr. Debbie Birx, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator speaks as President Donald Trump and other members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force listen at a press conference on the coronavirus, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 13. 2/50 SLIDES© STR/AFP/Getty Images Medical workers (R) check patients who recovered from the COVID-19 coronavirus as they arrive to be tested again at a hospital in Wuhan, in China’s central Hubei province on March 14. China reported 11 new infections of the coronavirus on March 14, and for the first time since the start of the epidemic the majority of them were imported cases from overseas. The National Health Commission said there were four more people infected in Hubei’s capital Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in December.  3/50 SLIDES© Dave Rowland/Getty Images New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern displays a graph during a press conference on March 14, in Auckland, New Zealand. Ardern explained how New Zealand will attempt to slow the increase of coronavirus (COVID-19 ) cases with travel restrictions and self-quarantine upon arrival to New Zealand.  4/50 SLIDES© Anjum Naveed/AP Photo A student takes a look at a banner regarding the symptoms and precautions for the coronavirus at an entrance of a university in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on March 14. Slideshow continues on the next slide5/50 SLIDES© Nicolò Campo/LightRocket/Getty Images A man plays guitar from the balcony of his home as a man looks at him in the neighborhood San Salvario during a flash mob launched throughout Italy to bring people together. The Italian government imposed unprecedented restrictions to halt the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, among other measures people movements are allowed only for work, for buying essential goods and for health reasons in Turin, Italy, on March 13. 6/50 SLIDES© Alex Wong/Getty Images Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to members of the media at the Capitol, on March 13, in Washington, DC. Speaker Pelosi held a briefing on the Coronavirus Aid Package Bill that will deal with the outbreak of COVID-19.  7/50 SLIDES© Brad Brooks/Reuters A shopper picks over the few items remaining in the meat section, as people stock up on supplies amid coronavirus fears in Austin, Texas, on March 13. 8/50 SLIDES© Jose Cabezas/Reuters A doctor examines a Salvadoran woman who entered the country from Guatemala before sending her to a facility to be quarantined, as El Salvador’s government has taken steadily stricter measures to prevent a possible spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), in Ahuchapan, El Salvador on March 13. 9/50 SLIDES© Jason Redmond/Reuters A father and his kids, load their books checked out at the Seattle Public Library Central Branch before all Seattle libraries close until at least April 13 and the kids prepare to stay home from school until April 27 because of the coronavirus, in Seattle, Washington, on March 13. Slideshow continues on the next slide10/50 SLIDES© Kyle Grillot/Reuters A classroom sits empty ahead of the statewide school closures in Ohio in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, on March 13. 11/50 SLIDES© Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images A general view of the Louvre Museum which was closed until further notice on March 13, in Paris, France. France has more than 2,000 coronavirus cases, one of the highest totals in Europe. Its government announced it will close all schools and museums and ban large gatherings. 12/50 SLIDES© Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images Kenya’s Minister of Health Mutahi Kagwe announces the first coronavirus case in Kenya at the press conference in Harambee house in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 13. 13/50 SLIDES© Xavi Torrent/Getty Images La Sagrada Familia is closed to visitors because of the potential risk of catching the coronavirus on March 13, in Barcelona, Spain. 14/50 SLIDES© Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images Some of the last flights to come from Europe to the US for the next 30 days are listed on a panel display at Logan Airport in East Boston, Massachusetts, on March 13. Slideshow continues on the next slide15/50 SLIDES© Rich Fury/Getty Images An unusually uncrowded TCL Chinese Theatre is seen on March 13, in Hollywood, California. The spread of COVID-19 has negatively affected a wide range of industries all across the global economy. 16/50 SLIDES© Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images Travelers arrive at the international terminal of the O’Hare Airport in Chicago, Illinois, on March 13. A minute before midnight, the US will enact a ban on travelers from a large number of European countries in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus. 17/50 SLIDES© Europa Press News/Europa Press/Getty Images Several people stand at a safe distance in a queue to enter a tobacco shop in Pozuelo de Alarcon  on the same day that the government declared a state of alarm in Spain as a result of the coronavirus on March 13, in Madrid, Spain. 18/50 SLIDES© William West/AFP/Getty Images

Members of the Ferrari team arrive to pack up their equipment after the Formula One Australian Grand Prix was cancelled in Melbourne on March 13. The season-opening Australian Grand Prix was cancelled on March 13 just hours before the action was due to start over fears about the spread of coronavirus after a McLaren team member tested positive. 
19/50 SLIDES© David Ramos/Getty Images Catalan Police officers, Mossos d’Escuadra, wearing a protective mask stand guard at a check-point outside the city on March 13 in Igualada, Spain. The Autonomous region’s authorities agreed to lock down 70,000 people living in Igualada, Vilanova del Cami, Odena and Santa Margarida de Montbui for 14 days. The number of people confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Spain has increased to at least 3,004, with the latest death toll reaching 84, according to the country’s Health Ministry. As part of the measures against the virus expansion the Government has shut schools in the most affected Autonomous regions most as Madrid, Catalonia, Basque Country or Andalucia.  20/50 SLIDES© Sean Gallup/Getty Images Passengers, including Aleksandra, left, from Poland and Sophia, center, from Germany, who said they will be working as au pairs in New York and booked their flights following Trump’s announcement, wait to board the last direct United Airlines flight from Berlin to New York at Tegel Airport before the Trump European travel ban goes into effect tonight on March 13 in Berlin, Germany. The Trump administration is temporarily banning all non-U.S. citizens from flying from continental Europe to the United States in an effort to slow the ongoing spread of the coronavirus.  21/50 SLIDES© Evan Vucci/AP Photo President Donald Trump and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar joke about not shaking hands during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, on March 12 in Washington.  22/50 SLIDES© Susan Walsh/AP Photo House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., right, bump elbows as they attend a lunch with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 12.  23/50 SLIDES© Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images Disneyland guests walk past the Sleeping Beauty Castle while visiting Disneyland amid rain showers in Anaheim, California, on March 12. Disneyland will temporary close the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim in response to the expanding threat posed by the Coronavirus Pandemic. The closure takes effect Saturday (March 14) and lasts through the end of March. Disneyland and Disney California Adventure will close Saturday morning through the end of the month in response to Gov. Gavin Newsom and state health officials recommendation that gatherings of 250 or more people be canceled across the state, company officials said.  24/50 SLIDES© Ben McKeown/AP Photo Florida State players gather with the championship trophy after they were announced the winner of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament after the remainder of NCAA college basketball games were cancelled, on March 12 in Greensboro, N.C. The tournament were cancelled due to concerns over the coronavirus. 25/50 SLIDES© Michael Conroy/AP Photo The seating area at Bankers Life Fieldhouse is empty as media and staff mill about, on March 12 in Indianapolis, after the Big Ten Conference announced that remainder of the men’s NCAA college basketball games tournament was cancelled.  26/50 SLIDES© Mark Humphrey/AP Photo Goals used by the NHL club The Predators are stored in a hallway in Bridgestone Arena, on March 12 in Nashville, Tenn. The NHL announced that it is suspending its season indefinitely in response to the coronavirus.  27/50 SLIDES© Getty Images A maternity nurse wears a mask as she cares for a newborn at a Private maternity hospital on March 12 in Wuhan, Hubei, China. Due to the shortage of medical resources in Wuhan, many pregnant women choose to give birth in private hospitals. Flights, trains and public transport including buses, subway and ferry services have been closed for almost two months..  28/50 SLIDES© Christopher Furlong/Getty Images NHS nurses wait for the next patient at a drive through Coronavirus testing site in a car park on March 12 in Wolverhampton, England. The National Health Service facility has been set up in a car park to allow people with NHS referrals to be swabbed for Covid-19.  29/50 SLIDES© Mike Segar/Reuters A worker removes stanchions used for arriving audience members at the Richard Rodgers theater where the musical ‘Hamilton’ plays after it was announced that Broadway shows will cancel performances due to the coronavirus outbreak in New York, on March 12.  30/50 SLIDES© Jason Redmond/Reuters Grace Wedgwood, 30, of Seattle and a Quaker, takes a moment to pray during a visit to St. James Cathedral, which is only open for prayer after the Archdiocese of Seattle canceled all public celebration of mass at all parishes due to concern over the coronavirus, in Seattle, Washington, on March 12.  31/50 SLIDES© Richard Drew/AP Photo A trader has his head in his hand on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, on March 12. The stock market had its biggest drop since the Black Monday crash of 1987 as fears of economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis deepened. The Dow industrials plunged more than 2,300 points, or 10%. The vast majority of people recover from the new coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness.  32/50 SLIDES© Aaron Favila/AP Photo A machine sprays disinfectants at a school on March 13 in Marikina, Philippines. The Philippine president announced domestic travel to and from metropolitan Manila will be suspended for a month. 33/50 SLIDES© Nathan Frandino/Reuters Lisa Wymore, a professor of dance, theater and performances studies at University of California, warm-ups for an online course on March 12 in Berkeley. 34/50 SLIDES© Norm Hall/Getty Images

A Los Angeles Dodgers fan looks through the first base gate at Camelback Ranch after Major League Baseball suspends Spring Training due to the ongoing threat of the Coronavirus on March 12 in Glendale, Arizona. 
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Empty seats during the UEFA Europa League match between Olympiacos FC and Wolverhampton Wanderers on March 12 in Piraeus, Greece. The match is played behind closed doors as a precaution against the spread of Coronavirus.36/50 SLIDES© Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Screenshot of the news broadcast from France 24 channel shows the declaration of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, made from The Elysee Palace in Paris, about the situation of the COVID-19 outbreak on March 12 in Paris, France.37/50 SLIDES© Spencer Platt/Getty Images People walk in the Theater District in Manhattan on March 12 in New York City. New York City’s Broadway theaters will need to close by 5 p.m. Thursday after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a ban on gatherings of 500 people or more amid the growing COVID-19 outbreak. 38/50 SLIDES© Maddie Meyer/Getty Images A view outside of TD Garden, the venue that hosts the Boston Bruins and Boston Celtics on March 12 in Boston, Massachusetts. It has been announced that NBA and NHL seasons have been suspended due to COVID-19 with hopes of returning later in the spring. 39/50 SLIDES© Alberto Lingria/Reuters

A nun walks next to an empty St. Peter’s Square, on the third day of an unprecedented lockdown across of all Italy, as seen from Rome, Italy on March 12.
40/50 SLIDES© Thanassis Stavrakis/AP Photo Greek actress Xanthi Georgiou, playing the role of the High Priestess, lights up the torch during the flame lighting ceremony at the closed and empty Ancient Olympia site, birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece, on March 12. 41/50 SLIDES© Andrew Theodorakis/Getty Images A lab technician begins semi-automated testing for COVID-19 at Northwell Health Labs on March 11 in Lake Success, New York. 42/50 SLIDES© Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo In another coronavirus precaution, California officials cordoned off the sculpture of a bear outside the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. on March 11. 43/50 SLIDES© Karen Ducey/Reuters Cleaning crews from Servpro have their masks wiped down as they emerge from the Life Care Center of Kirkland, the long-term care facility linked to several confirmed coronavirus cases in the state, in Kirkland, Washington on March 11. 44/50 SLIDES© Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the Oval Office about the widening coronavirus crisis on March 11, in Washington, D.C. President Trump said the US will suspend all travel from Europe for the next 30 days. 45/50 SLIDES© Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

Judie Shape, center, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, blows a kiss to her son-in-law, Michael Spencer, left, as Shape’s daughter, Lori Spencer, right, looks on as they visit on the phone and look at each other through a window at the Life Care Center, on March 11, in Kirkland, Washington, near Seattle.46/50 SLIDES© Hussein Malla/AP Photo

A woman passes in front the emergency entrance of the government-run Rafik Hariri University Hospital, in Beirut, Lebanon, on March 11.
47/50 SLIDES© Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters Passengers are checked with thermal scanner at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport as a preventive measure of Coronavirus in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on March 11. 48/50 SLIDES© Pascal Rossignol/Reuters A cruise ship, held by Belgian authorities, is seen in the port of Zeebrugge over suspected cases of the coronavirus after the country’s first death from the disease, in Zeebrugge, Belgium on March 11. 49/50 SLIDES© Heo Ran/Reuters Employees from a disinfection service company sanitize a subway car depot amid coronavirus fears in Seoul, South Korea, on March 11. 50/50 SLIDES© Johannes P. Christo/Reuters A medical worker wearing protective suits pulls a stretcher from an ambulance to the isolation room for patients affected coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Sanglah Hospital in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, on March 11. 50/50 SLIDES

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Mr. Colvin is one of probably thousands of sellers who have amassed stockpiles of hand sanitizer and crucial respirator masks that many hospitals are now rationing, according to interviews with eight Amazon sellers and posts in private Facebook and Telegram groups from dozens more. Amazon said it had recently removed hundreds of thousands of listings and suspended thousands of sellers’ accounts for price gouging related to the coronavirus.

Amazon, eBay, Walmart and other online-commerce platforms are trying to stop their sellers from making excessive profits from a public health crisis. While the companies aimed to discourage people from hoarding such products and jacking up their prices, many sellers had already cleared out their local stores and started selling the goods online.

Now both the physical and digital shelves are nearly empty.

Mikeala Kozlowski, a nurse in Dudley, Mass., has been searching for hand sanitizer since before she gave birth to her first child, Nora, on March 5. When she searched stores, which were sold out, she skipped getting gas to avoid handling the pump. And when she checked Amazon, she couldn’t find it for less than $50.

“You’re being selfish, hoarding resources for your own personal gain,” she said of the sellers.

Sites like Amazon and eBay have given rise to a growing industry of independent sellers who snatch up discounted or hard-to-find items in stores to post online and sell around the world.

These sellers call it retail arbitrage, a 21st-century career that has adults buying up everything from limited-run cereals to Fingerling Monkeys, a once hot toy. The bargain hunters look for anything they can sell at a sharp markup. In recent weeks, they found perhaps their biggest opportunity: a pandemic.

As they watched the list of Amazon’s most popular searches crowd with terms like “Purell,” “N95 mask” and “Clorox wipes,” sellers said, they did what they had learned to do: Suck up supply and sell it for what the market would bear.

Initially, the strategy worked. For several weeks, prices soared for some of the top results to searches for sanitizer, masks and wipes on Amazon, according to a New York Times analysis of historical prices from Jungle Scout, which tracks data for Amazon sellers. The data shows that both Amazon and third-party sellers like Mr. Colvin increased their prices, which then mostly dropped when Amazon took action against price gouging this month.

At the high prices, people still bought the products en masse, and Amazon took a cut of roughly 15 percent and eBay roughly 10 percent, depending on the price and the seller.

Then the companies, pressured by growing criticism from regulators and customers, cracked down. After the measures last week, Amazon went further on Wednesday, restricting sales of any coronavirus-related products from certain sellers.

“Price gouging is a clear violation of our policies, unethical, and in some areas, illegal,” Amazon said in a statement. “In addition to terminating these third party accounts, we welcome the opportunity to work directly with states attorneys general to prosecute bad actors.”

Mr. Colvin, 36, a former Air Force technical sergeant, said he started selling on Amazon in 2015, developing it into a six-figure career by selling Nike shoes and pet toys, and by following trends.

In early February, as headlines announced the coronavirus’s spread in China, Mr. Colvin spotted a chance to capitalize. A nearby liquidation firm was selling 2,000 “pandemic packs,” leftovers from a defunct company. Each came with 50 face masks, four small bottles of hand sanitizer and a thermometer. The price was $5 a pack. Mr. Colvin haggled it to $3.50 and bought them all.

He quickly sold all 2,000 of the 50-packs of masks on eBay, pricing them from $40 to $50 each, and sometimes higher. He declined to disclose his profit on the record but said it was substantial.

The success stoked his appetite. When he saw the panicked public starting to pounce on sanitizer and wipes, he and his brother set out to stock up.

Elsewhere in the country, other Amazon sellers were doing the same.

Chris Anderson, an Amazon seller in central Pennsylvania, said he and a friend had driven around Ohio, buying about 10,000 masks from stores. He used coupons to buy packs of 10 for around $15 each and resold them for $40 to $50. After Amazon’s cut and other costs, he estimates, he made a $25,000 profit.

Mr. Anderson is now holding 500 packs of antibacterial wipes after Amazon blocked him from selling them for $19 each, up from $16 weeks earlier. He bought the packs for $3 each.

Eric, a truck driver from Ohio who spoke on the condition that his surname not be published because he feared Amazon would retaliate, said he had also collected about 10,000 masks at stores. He bought each 10-pack for about $20 and sold most for roughly $80 each, though some he priced at $125.

“Even at $125 a box, they were selling almost instantly,” he said. “It was mind-blowing as far as what you could charge.” He estimates he made $35,000 to $40,000 in profit.

Now he has 1,000 more masks on order, but he’s not sure what to do with them. He said Amazon had been vague about what constituted price gouging, scaring away sellers who don’t want to risk losing their ability to sell on its site.

To regulators and many others, the sellers are sitting on a stockpile of medical supplies during a pandemic. The attorney general’s offices in California, Washington and New York are all investigating price gouging related to the coronavirus. California’s price-gouging law bars sellers from increasing prices by more than 10 percent after officials declare an emergency. New York’s law prohibits sellers from charging an “unconscionably excessive price” during emergencies.

An official at the Washington attorney general’s office said the agency believed it could apply the state’s consumer-protection law to sue platforms or sellers, even if they aren’t in Washington, as long as they were trying to sell to Washington residents.

Mr. Colvin does not believe he was price gouging. While he charged $20 on Amazon for two bottles of Purell that retail for $1 each, he said people forget that his price includes his labor, Amazon’s fees and about $10 in shipping. (Alcohol-based sanitizer is pricey to ship because officials consider it a hazardous material.) News to stay informed. Advice to stay safe.
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Current price-gouging laws “are not built for today’s day and age,” Mr. Colvin said. “They’re built for Billy Bob’s gas station doubling the amount he charges for gas during a hurricane.”

He added, “Just because it cost me $2 in the store doesn’t mean it’s not going to cost me $16 to get it to your door.”

But what about the morality of hoarding products that can prevent the spread of the virus, just to turn a profit?

Mr. Colvin said he was simply fixing “inefficiencies in the marketplace.” Some areas of the country need these products more than others, and he’s helping send the supply toward the demand.

“There’s a crushing overwhelming demand in certain cities right now,” he said. “The Dollar General in the middle of nowhere outside of Lexington, Ky., doesn’t have that.”

He thought about it more. “I honestly feel like it’s a public service,” he added. “I’m being paid for my public service.”

As for his stockpile, Mr. Colvin said he would now probably try to sell it locally. “If I can make a slight profit, that’s fine,” he said. “But I’m not looking to be in a situation where I make the front page of the news for being that guy who hoarded 20,000 bottles of sanitizer that I’m selling for 20 times what they cost me.”

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