MERCED, CA – As the County of Merced continues to respond to the ongoing threat posed by the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak, Merced County District Attorney Kimberly R. H. Lewis warns business owners and opportunistic con artists that they will be criminally prosecuted if they engage in price gouging or consumer fraud.
“The Merced County District Attorney’s Office will not tolerate individuals or businesses that prey on vulnerable consumers during this public health emergency. We will investigate and prosecute instances of price gouging and consumer fraud to the fullest extent of the law.”
As a result of this public health emergency, reports of elevated prices, or “price gouging,” have been reported in California and across the country. California Penal Code Section 396 states “when a declared state of emergency or local emergency results in abnormal disruptions of the market, the public interest requires that excessive and unjustified increases in the prices of essential consumer goods and services be prohibited.”
During a declared state of emergency, it is illegal for a business to increase its prices for essential goods or services by more than 10 percent, unless they can show their own supply or labor costs have increased.
Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in California on March 4, 2020. Merced County Office of Emergency Services (OES) and Merced County Department of Public Health proclaimed a local and public health emergency on March 13, 2020.
The law applies to several products and necessities including: food and drink (including food and drink for animals); emergency supplies such as water, flashlights, radios, batteries, candles, soaps, diapers, baby formula, toiletries; and medical supplies such as prescription and nonprescription medications, bandages, gauze, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, and other antibacterial products.
Those who violate the price gouging statute are subject to criminal prosecution that can result in a one-year imprisonment in county jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000. Violators are also subject to civil enforcement actions including civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, injunctive relief and mandatory restitution.
In addition to price gouging, consumers should be on the lookout for other types of scams and cons that are common during public emergencies. Criminals may set up fake websites or charities, send emails, texts or post on social media pretending to be from the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an attempt to profit illegally. They may also seek donations to help victims of this emergency.
Additionally, be wary of any business claiming to have a miracle cure. There is currently no cure for the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Do not allow fear or anxiety to overtake common sense.
Anyone who suspects an instance price gouging is encouraged to fill out an online complaint form at:
Also, to report consumer fraud please fill out a complaint form at: