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Parents accuse online sellers of price gouging on baby formula

As sellers jack up prices by as much as 300 percent, desperate parents say platforms are doing little or nothing to intervene.
Lisa Davis, a 42-year-old mother of five, with her 14-month-old son, Jack. Davis says she's reported price gouging of baby formula to eBay, but it has done "nothing about it."
Lisa Davis, a 42-year-old mother of five, with her 14-month-old son, Jack. Davis says she's reported price gouging of baby formula to eBay, but it has done "nothing about it."Ilana Panich-Linsman for NBC News

Parents struggling to find baby formula amid a nationwide shortage are reporting that price gougers are selling bottles and cans marked up by as much as 300 percent or more on websites like eBay, OfferUp, Amazon and Craigslist, and inside Facebook communities. But in many cases, they’re finding that the platforms are doing little to punish the predatory sellers.

“If you go onto eBay, there is page after page after page of people selling formula for double, triple, quadruple what it costs in stores,” said 42-year-old Lisa Davis, a mother of five from Lehi, Utah, who supplements her 14-month-old son’s diet with formula due to his small size, as strictly advised by his pediatrician. Davis estimates that she has flagged around 20 predatory formula listings to eBay. “But eBay does nothing about it.”

Enfamil baby formula on sale on eBay for $200.
Enfamil baby formula on sale on eBay for $200.

In one case, she found a single 12.4-ounce can of Enfamil Gentlease listed for $60 before shipping — more than triple what Target, Walgreens and other out-of-stock stores are currently charging. She informed the seller that she had reported it to eBay for its inflated price, which only elicited an angry response.

“[G]et over it,” the seller wrote back in an exchange reviewed by NBC News. “it is not illegal u may dislike but u have NO right to interfere in my buisness. people do it constantly.”

State attorneys general and elected officials have raised concerns about the online price gouging of baby formula in recent days. In a May 13 letter that Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, both Connecticut Democrats, sent to FTC Chair Lina Khan, they warned that they were aware of price gouging and scams targeting parents specifically on sites like eBay and Facebook Marketplace.

But the scope of such price gouging is hard to gauge; parents with newborns say they typically don’t have the time to file complaints with government agencies, and the tech companies they are complaining to say they don’t have data to share. A review of more than 100 seemingly price-gouged formula listings across these websites and conversations with 13 parents in states across the country reveal that the problem has been growing online.

“People don’t realize how bad this is right now,” Davis said, “or how little sites like eBay seem to care.”

Lisa Davis mixes a bottle of formula for her 14-month old son Jack at a hotel room in Austin.
Lisa Davis mixes a bottle of formula for her 14-month-old son, Jack, at a hotel room in Austin, TexasIlana Panich-Linsman for NBC News

That’s partly because there is still no federal law prohibiting price gouging, and many state laws do not cover formula sales, noted Teresa Murray, the consumer watchdog director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. And while many independent-seller platforms do have policies explicitly banning this practice, the companies often aren’t able to adequately enforce them, she added.

“The reality is that they may not have the ability to police in real-time what’s being put up for sale on their websites,” she said. Parents, meanwhile, are left paying the price.

While eBay’s published policies prohibit “inflating the price of goods in response to an emergency or disaster” and require “items that are considered essential” to be “offered at a reasonable price,” Davis said several listings she flagged remain active while others have sold out. A spokesperson for eBay, Scott Overland, said that the company has been working to address price gouging through the formula crisis.

“We work with manufacturers and government officials to identify items at risk of price gouging and have a price-gouging reporting tool available to our entire community to report any potential violations of our policy,” he said. “Due to the ongoing shortage, we are stepping up our manual review of listings to protect against price gouging of baby formula.”

Facebook problems

Inside rapidly growing Facebook groups dedicated to selling formula, members say unpaid, volunteer administrators have been tasked with searching and removing price-gouged sale posts, which they say pop up often throughout the day. 

Samantha Collins, a 34-year-old mother in Channahon, Illinois, was searching for a special high-calorie formula for her identical twin girls, who were born premature in February. She recently joined a 35,000-member Facebook group called “baby formula for sale,” which has gained thousands of members in the past week. Like other Facebook groups, it has hundreds of comments dating back weeks complaining about apparent price gouging by fellow group members.

A posting on Facebook advertising baby formula for sale
A posting on Facebook advertising baby formula for sale Facebook

NBC News has seen posts in the group featuring images of formula being sold at inflated prices, including one advertising “two cans” of Enfamil Neuro Pro for $110 each, when the largest cans of that product generally retail for less than half that cost, and another asking for $34 per 12.5-ounce can of Enfamil Infant Formula, which normally costs around $18.

Ashley Settle, a spokesperson for Meta, which owns Facebook, said that in Facebook groups, it is not against Meta’s rules to advertise items at inflated prices.

Some parents also report seeing overpriced baby formula on Facebook Marketplace, where Settle said formula is prohibited from being sold. One such Marketplace listing, with the coded title “Baby food1,” appeared to sell one 19.9-ounce can Enfamil Gentlease for $100 plus shipping, which would normally retail for around $25 to $30. Meta removed the listing after NBC News asked about it.

Settle said that the enforcement of the company’s commerce policies, which apply to Facebook Marketplace, relies primarily on automated technology, but that some listings are manually reviewed.

“Like other platforms for buying and selling goods, there may be instances where some people sell prohibited items on Marketplace whether they realize it or not,” said Settle. “We work to find and remove these listings and encourage people across our platforms to report behavior that may break our rules.”

Gouging on Amazon

Collins said she has discovered price gouging on Amazon, too. She said she has seen her daughters’ Enfamil EnfaCare formula being sold on Amazon for around $166 for a pack of six 13.6-ounce cans, which typically lasts her about a week, compared to the $113.99 she paid for the same product from Target and Walmart prior to the shortage. 

Buying on Amazon would raise her formula expenses by more than 45 percent, but it could soon be her only option as the girls drink the remaining cans she has managed to secure. She said she has reported a number of listings to Amazon, but they did not come down. It did not appear that the third-party sellers, who advertise on Amazon but are not part of the company, were suspended.

Lori Capps of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a 37-year-old mother-to-be who is due in three weeks, has turned to Amazon to secure a small supply of formula. She said she has come across 20 to 30 price-gouged third-party listings there while searching for herself as well as for her friend, a single mother whose child is fed via a tube and requires one can of Neocate Junior formula per day. A case of four 14.1-ounce cans of that product regularly retails for around $175. But a still-active Amazon listing she found is asking for $320. Another charges $305, while a third seller charges $84.99 for one can.

“It bothers me because it [Amazon] made a big deal about not allowing this for toilet paper and cleaning supplies in 2020,” said Capps, who added that she has reported five different formula sellers and even contacted Amazon’s customer service directly to no avail. “Cut to today and there’s obviously price gouging [of formula] happening all over. It’s so frustrating that Amazon is letting this happen.”

Amazon spokesperson Patrick Graham said the company is actively working on monitoring prices on the site. “We continuously compare the prices submitted by our selling partners with current and historic prices inside and outside our store to determine if prices are fair. If we identify a price that violates our policy, we remove the offer and take appropriate action with the seller.”

Breaking point

Other parents, like 32-year-old Tara Routzong, who lives just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, have found these prices so debilitating that they have resorted to extreme measures to find formula offline. Routzong’s 5-month-old daughter, who is entirely dependent on Enfamil Nutramigen hypoallergenic formula, has severe allergies and nearly ran out of her supply two weeks ago. 

Routzong and her husband scoured the internet. He struck out on Craigslist and OfferUp, where Routzong said he saw other formula brands being sold for far above market value. In one listing he found, an OfferUp seller charged $75 before shipping for a single 12.4-ounce can of Enfamil Gentlease, which retails for about $18 at Target.

Jack, Lisa Davis' 14-month-old-son, reaches for a bottle of formula at a hotel room in Austin.
Jack, Lisa Davis' 14-month-old son. His pediatrician recommends supplementing his diet with baby formula because of his small size.Ilana Panich-Linsman for NBC News

While Craigslist did not respond to a request for comment, OfferUp spokesperson Brandon Vaughan said in part that while the platform “does not generally control pricing on our marketplace,” it created price-gouging protocols at the start of the pandemic for certain items and recently “engaged those protocols on baby formula.” OfferUp has a team of investigators who proactively search for and remove violative listings, he added, and users can report listings as well.

Routzong tried eBay, where she was able to find the Nutramigen formula she needed. But it was priced at $200 for six 32-ounce bottles, which usually cost her about $63 at Walmart. She reported the listing, with no response, and started sobbing. Her husband made a six-hour roundtrip to a Walmart in Troy, Alabama, instead of buying it online. But she only has a few days’ supply left, and doesn’t know what they’ll do when it runs out.

“If it comes down to it, we’ll just have to start paying these ridiculous prices,” she said. “What choice do we have?”