A Pleasanton grocery store owner who allegedly doubled and tripled his food prices following the COVID-19 outbreak has become the first Alameda County resident charged with price gouging during the state of emergency.
Rajvinder Pal Singh, owner of Apna Bazar, 4040 Pimlico Drive, allegedly raised prices on produce, tea and noodles from 25% to more than 300% in the days after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his state of emergency March 4, investigators said in court documents.
Prosecutors from Alameda County and the state Attorney General's office on Thursday, May 7 announced they had jointly filed a complaint against Singh, alleging nine misdemeanor counts of price gouging of food during an emergency.
“The law prevents businesses from profiteering when we are in a state of emergency," Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said in a statement. "All businesses throughout Alameda County must be on notice that we will not sit idly by and allow consumers to fall prey to price gouging."
Singh, who must appear in court on July 9, could not be reached for comment. A man who answered the phone at his store Thursday and Friday said Singh was not in.
According to prosecutors, customers began complaining about Singh's store through phone calls, emails and social-media postings to the District Attorney's office soon after the pandemic began. The California Department of Justice also received complaints.
"One complainant wrote the store was charging 'whatever they want,'” an investigator wrote in his report. "The social-media post and pictures we received from complainants showed that the prices on the shelves were scribbled over or crossed out with a marker, with no new price listed on the shelves."
Investigators collected receipts from Singh’s customers, finding prices increased over several days when compared to ads and photos posted on an Apna Bazar social-media account that showed previous prices for goods, the report said.
Detectives found nine items with price increases after March 4, including one item priced at $2.99 on March 2 that went up 67% to $4.99 on March 13. Three days later, the price was $6.99, or 134% of the original price, the report said.
"When I spoke with him, he stated he had been forced to turn to other suppliers to keep his shelves stocked and they were charging more, and he was simply passing on the costs," a detective wrote in his report.
The complaint identified the items as yellow onions, ginger, green beans, small Thai chili hot peppers, pomegranates, red yams, Tea India CTC Assam Loose Black Tea, Ching's Secret Singapore Curry Instant Noodles and Maggi 2 Minute Noodles.
California law prohibits raising prices more than 10% for an item during a state of emergency. On March 4, the governor declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which put the price gouging law into effect.
"We take price gouging seriously and are committed to going after those who break the law during the public health emergency,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “The Department of Justice relies on all Californians to be vigilant in detecting price gouging. If you see something suspicious, or if you are a victim of price gouging, file a complaint. The more you report, the more we can stop this abuse.”
Other Apna Bazar locations in the Bay Area are not part of the investigation.
Alameda County residents who believe they are victims of price gouging are asked to email the District Attorney's Office at firstname.lastname@example.org.