CHICAGO (CBS) — With people rushing to stock up on food, medical supplies, toilet paper, and other groceries during the “stay at home” order amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Chicago stores struggling to keep their shelves stocked, city officials said they’ve seen a surge in complaints about price gouging.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office said the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection has received 190 complaints about price gouging so far this month, compared to only two for all of last year.

“While a reasonable price escalation due to increased demand or decreased supply may occur in the current environment, price gouging on things like medicine and other essential items will not be tolerated by the City of Chicago,” said Mayor Lightfoot.  “Today we are reminding residents to report activity immediately, so the City can take action immediately. We are sending a clear message that those who prey on the fears and vulnerabilities of our residents to profit during this time of crisis will be penalized to the fullest extent possible.”

If you see stores charging unreasonably high prices on food, medical supplies, or other goods, you can call 311 to file a complaint, or use the city’s CHI311 app on your smartphone. Consumers also can file complaints on the Illinois Attorney General’s Office’s website, or by calling the Consumer Fraud Hotline (1-800-386-5438).

The mayor’s office said most complaints about price gouging this month have involved household items like hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and tissues. There also have been complaints about prices for food and beverages.

The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) evaluates each complaint based on a variety of factors, including the prices of specific items before the governor’s COVID-19 disaster declaration, as well as prices at other stores.

When Brian Hunt noticed a rise in the cost of toilet paper at convenience stores in his Auburn Gresham neighborhood last week, he decided to document it and ask store owners why.

When he asked one store owner if he could pay the normal price of 99 cents per roll, instead of the new $1.99 per roll, the owner asked him, “How am I gonna make a profit? How am I gonna pay my workers?”

While prices remained steady in some stores, Hunt said other stores increased their prices 100% to 150%.

“What the hell?” Hunt asked. “It’s unethical. This is a bad time for not just for my community, but for the entire world.”

He was not alone in his outrage. Viewers across the city and the suburbs have sent CBS 2 advertisements for water, paper products, and hand sanitizer that are far from steal deals.

Businesses can face fines of up to $10,000 per offense if the city determines they are charging unreasonable prices.

“Now is the time for all of Chicago to come together for the health of our community,” said BACP Commissioner Rosa Escareno. “We will not tolerate bad actors that think of their bottom line instead of their fellow Chicagoan during times like this. I will not hesitate to hold these businesses accountable.”

In addition to reporting instances of price gouging, the city is recommending people ignore any offers promising vaccines, treatments, or home test kits for COVID-19, noting there is no FDA-approved vaccine or medial treatment, and that all testing is being coordinated by state and local public health agencies.

The city also offered the following tips about possible scams:

  • Never share your personal or financial information over email, text message or over the phone.
  • If considering charitable donations, residents should stick with familiar or reputable organizations.
  • Be suspicious of unfamiliar businesses or online sellers who claim to have in-demand products, like cleaning, household, and health and medical supplies.  Products may be counterfeit.

“During this unprecedented crisis, we have to take every action possible to ensure Chicago’s residents are not exploited through misinformation on fake vaccines or price gouging for essential resources our communities need,” said Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady. “For the most-up-to-date information on how to prevent COVID-19 and keep yourself safe, residents should adhere to the advice of public health experts, not the scammers seeking profit from fear.”