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Coronavirus panic turns to profit for some online sellers

Updated March 4, 2020 - 1:14 pm

While some Las Vegas residents are rushing to stockpile supplies and prepare for a potential outbreak of the new coronavirus, others are turning that panic into profit.

N95 respirator masks are largely sold out online and in local stores, but they’ve become a hot commodity on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and numerous apps used for private sales by individuals — usually at a steep markup.

Health officials have urged people to stop buying respirator masks, out of fear that a shortage could endanger health care workers. The masks are effective at preventing infection but unnecessary for those who aren’t working in direct contact with patients with communicable diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I know some people think it’s crazy,” said Kevin, a local mask seller on OfferUp, who declined to give his last name. “But others understand.”

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On Tuesday, he posted three listings on OfferUp for packs of 3M brand respirators at more than double their retail price. Two packs were listed at $100, and the third was $90. But those prices were relatively low compared to the dozen or so other listings on the app.

‘Can I buy all your boxes’

“I get texts that say ‘are you (expletive) crazy?’ And then I get more that are like ‘can I buy all your boxes?’ ” Kevin said.

He said he bought his masks at a markup from other sellers for himself, because he plays poker and worries about his close proximity to other players. He ended up buying too many, though, and sent some to his parents in California because they couldn’t find any masks in stores. That led to the idea that he could sell most of his remaining stock.

“Sure, I mark it up so I can benefit,” he said, “but it benefits others to get it as well.”

The problem of price gouging for sought-after supplies amid growing concerns about the respiratory illness COVID-19 is not limited to Nevada.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom called out third-party sellers on Amazon hawking overpriced Purell hand sanitizer in a tweet Tuesday, including a screenshot showing a $400 listing for a case of 24 2-ounce bottles.

In October, the Las Vegas Review-Journal paid less than $18 per box on Amazon for N95 respirator masks to protect breaking news reporters from dust and smoke, but on Tuesday prices for similar masks ranged from nearly $50 to more than $200.

While various virus-related items were offered by sellers in the valley, a survey of marketplace sites indicated that masks were the no. 1 item being offered.

Ryan Townsend, a Facebook seller, said he bought respirator masks for work but turned to Facebook to recoup his losses after discovering he had more than he needed. He priced his Radnor N95 masks at $100 for a pack of 20 — more than five times the retail price.

“If I sell a $2,000 car for $5,000, am I an evil person or just a good salesman?” he asked rhetorically.

Some charge by piece

Local listings ranged from $7 to $300 for packs of the masks, with some sellers charging by the piece.

One Henderson seller, who removed the listing after being contacted by the Review-Journal, advertised three individually wrapped N95 masks at $20 each, or $50 for the lot, for anyone who would meet him at Anthem Country Club and pay cash.

Another seller, who also removed the listing after being contacted, was selling dust and particle masks commonly used in construction, which would provide no protection from airborne viruses like the one that causes COVID-19.

That offer may have been intended to capitalize on public confusion after the Food and Drug and Administration on Tuesday sought to ease a shortage of face masks by giving health care workers the OK to use a sophisticated industrial type of respirator mask designed to protect construction crews from dust and debris.

Reusable cloth masks were also common in the listings, despite a 2015 study that concluded cloth masks not only are significantly less effective than surgical masks but can also increase the wearer’s risk of infection.

Facebook’s commerce guidelines forbid users from selling medical devices or products, including thermometers, first-aid kits and bandages, but as of Tuesday afternoon the Las Vegas listings were still online. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on whether respirators and surgical masks could be sold on its marketplace.

Townsend said that he hadn’t sold any masks as of Tuesday afternoon, but the messages he had received were “mostly hate from people who want them, but don’t have intention to buy them.”

Kevin said he’d sold all but 10 of the 60 boxes he’d bought, and he was considering removing the listings to keep the remaining masks for himself.

Contact Max Michor at mmichor@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0365. Follow @MaxMichor on Twitter.

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