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Why some businesses are adding a COVID-19 surcharge – and is it legal?

Posted at 4:23 AM, Dec 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-04 04:23:10-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Next time you pay your bill or order an item from a catalog, look for any out-of-the-ordinary charges you’ve never seen before. A Detroit woman spotted one – a COVID-19 surcharge.

Deb Kales of Detroit was about to order a couple of nightgowns from a catalog she’s ordered from before called Essentials by AmeriMark.

“There was something added to the order form. It says on here COVID-19 surcharge - $3.49,” said Kales.

She also had her eye on some earrings from another Amerimark catalog called Windsor Collection. The order form showed a similar fee.

“I thought it was ridiculous. I just could not understand how they could do that,” explained Kales.

Kales has been indefinitely laid off from her job at Greenfield Village and said she cannot afford any extra charges.

“I understand that maybe they feel they’ve got to do this, but I’m an unemployed person. And I don’t know when I’m going to get back to work,” Kales said.

The Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula has received phone calls about a few doctor’s and dentist’s offices charging a COVID-19 fee to pay for extra personal protective equipment.

I reached out to the Michigan Attorney General’s office to see if these surcharges are even legal. Basically, there’s no quick and easy answer.

Michigan’s Consumer Protection Act is the law that protects consumers from being deceived.

The AG’s Press Secretary Ryan Jarvi said in a statement, in part, “If a company were to give consumers the false impression that a COVID fee was legally required, that would be a deception not allowed by the act.”

Jarvi’s statement continued, explaining, “If a company were to hide the application of the fee until the processing of the payment, that could be a deception that can be addressed under the act. And, if a company were to be telling consumers it was charging the fee so that it could buy additional sanitizers and cleaning products but was really using the money to boost profits, that would be a deception potentially addressable under the act.”

So, what should you do?

If you’re charged a fee that was not fairly disclosed, file a consumer complaint on the state attorney general’s website.

If a disproportionate part of your overall bill is a COVID-19 surcharge, and you think a business is trying to gouge you, report it.

Kales is just taking her business elsewhere.

“I can’t afford an extra $3.49 for ordering anything,” said Kales.

Jarvi told 7 Action News that the Michigan Attorney General’s office handled a case recently where a large assisted living company charged its residents a COVID-19 fee. The Attorney General alleged the imposed fee violated the company’s contracts with its residents.

A settlement was reached, and the residents got their money back if they’d already paid the fee. Those who had not paid the fee, no longer had to.

Bottom line, report any fee if you think it was deceptive or not fairly disclosed.