Stores have been selling out of toilet paper since word that the first COVID-19 case was detected in Oregon last weekend. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

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Update: This story has been updated with comment from 7-11's corporate office.

The Oregon Department of Justice is accusing four convenience stores of price-gouging on its sales of toilet paper, bottled water and surgical masks.

The agency on Tuesday issued cease-and-desist letters to two stores in Salem, one each in Keizer and Portland that said they were charging an “unconscionably excessive price” for goods that have been in high demand during the coronavirus outbreak.

Last week Gov. Kate Brown declared an “abnormal disruption to the Oregon marketplace” because of the coronavirus pandemic. The declaration followed reports of stores selling out of toilet paper and hand sanitizer or selling these and other items at exorbitant prices. 

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum can use the state’s consumer protection laws against companies that increase the price of essential products by 15% or more. Essential products include food, fuel, water, cleaning products and medical supplies and services.

Since setting up a price-gouging hotline on March 16, the Justice Department received over 100 phone calls and complaints, according to spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson.

The letters don’t specify how much stores were charging for essential goods. They notify each store that the department has received one or more complaint about them charging excessive prices and orders them to stop. The letters also warn that the attorney general may seek civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation and require businesses to pay restitution to injured consumers.

Of the letters issued by the department, two were sent to 7-11 stores for charging excessive prices for surgical masks. One store is located at 4715 N.E. Columbia Boulevard in Portland. The other is located at 2002 Lancaster Drive N.E. in Salem.

Phone numbers listed for each of the 7-11 stores were not functional. A message sent to an email address for media inquires on 7-11’s corporate website Thursday afternoon was not immediately answered.

The company's corporate office responded with a statement.

"7-Eleven is committed to providing quality products at fair, honest prices," reads the statement. "Any violations of federal, state, and local price-gouging laws will not be tolerated. We are taking steps to resolve any issues brought to our attention as 7-Eleven strongly discourages these practices. 7-Eleven stands ready to serve communities in which we do business during this difficult time.”

Another letter accused the AM-PM convenience store at 501 Lancaster Drive N.E in Salem of selling excessively priced bottled water. No one answered the phone at a number for the store listed online and the call did not go to voicemail.

A fourth letter was sent to Keizer Food Market at 4495 River Road North, for excessively raising its price of toilet paper. Luke Peca, store manager, denied the accusation.

“We don’t even sell toilet paper,” he said.

Edmunson said in an email that the department has followed up on many complaints by contacting the business or sending out an investigator. She said that businesses often don’t understand the state’s price-gouging laws and will lower prices after being contacted.

“If we are not satisfied, we will follow-up with a cease-and-desist letter,” she said. “We have been monitoring the complaints closely and will probably be sending more out.”

The declaration also applies to online retailers. Rosenblum was one of 33 state attorneys general who signed a letter sent on Wednesday to Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, Facebook and Walmart warning them that they aren’t exempt from state price-gouging laws. The letter cited one incident where a two-liter bottle of hand sanitizer was sold online for $250 on Craigslist.  

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.