As the coronavirus outbreak spreads across the world, people everywhere are panic buying supplies such as toilet paper, hand sanitiser and face masks. And many have attempted to capitalise off that by selling goods in high demand online, at several times their retail price.
In response, eBay has banned sales of face masks and hand sanitiser. Facebook and Google have banned advertisements selling face masks, and also such sales in Facebook Marketplace. Amazon is restricting third parties from selling these products (though how they’re deciding who should be restricted is unclear).
These measures have been implemented with mixed success — ads were still appearing on Google and people were still listing face masks on Marketplace using keywords other than “coronavirus” — but the intent is there.
But on the Australian iteration of Gumtree — a huge buy, swap and sell website that is based in the UK — no such restrictions are in place.
And people are going hog wild selling toilet paper, hand sanitiser and face masks, often at a significant premium.
Many people have posted to social media about their frustration over the price gouging.
It’s difficult to tell how often these goods are being successfully sold for exorbitant prices, because Gumtree does not list the sale price once an item has been sold.
In some cases, the listings are clearly a joke.
But in other cases, multiple listings found by BuzzFeed News show supplies in high demand being repeatedly sold by the same users.
Hundreds of people have signed a petition calling for Gumtree to stop listing these goods.
The site does not take a portion of sales, so there isn’t any particular incentive to allow expensive goods to be sold on its platform.
And one of Australia’s most senior politicians — home affairs minister Peter Dutton, who was also the first Australian politician to be diagnosed with COVID-19 — has threatened to “come down like a ton of bricks” on people profiteering off the coronavirus pandemic.
I asked Gumtree earlier this week whether it would follow the example of other classified sites and crack down on price gouging.
The response sent on behalf of the company was swift and emphatic: nah.
It said Gumtree encouraged users to report ads that breached their policies — which includes ads “intended to profit off natural disasters, health or public safety concerns, or tragic events” — and recommended people get advice from the World Health Organization before making purchases.
But it did not say it would crack down itself on the price gouging.
I replied, just in case my request had been misunderstood.
After a few hours a reply popped into my inbox. In short: yes, that’s correct, at the moment.
The company’s position hinted at a change — “Gumtree is exploring restrictions and will be implementing changes to their policy in due course” — but hasn’t informed BuzzFeed News of any updated policies since.
The site isn’t entirely filled by price gouging. Some people are using Gumtree to offer supplies to people in need for free.
One seller even changed their mind about selling toilet paper because, they said, they felt “guilty about it”.
Following publication of this report, Gumtree announced it will temporarily ban the sales of toilet paper, hand sanitiser, disinfecting wipes and face masks.