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Shortages, price gouging and scams: It’s hard to be a consumer in the time of coronavirus

Runs on supermarkets, price gouging, canceled meetings and events — it seems like every day brings something new for consumers to worry about.
(KTLA-TV Channel 5)

I’m business columnist David Lazarus, with a look today at some of the ways the coronavirus pandemic is affecting consumers.

Aside from a scary risk of getting sick, the coronavirus has become an obstacle course for ordinary people as they try to live their lives amid myriad challenges and hardships.

Runs on supermarkets and other stores, price gouging, canceled meetings and events, possible job cutbacks — it seems like every day brings something new to worry about.

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Not surprisingly, consumers are being warned that scammers are emerging from their dark caves to try to fleece people amid so much uncertainty.

“In any unsettled times, whether it be the aftermath of a devastating storm or in this case the spread of a new virus, there are those who choose to take advantage of the public’s apprehension and uncertainty,” Kansas Atty. Gen. Derek Schmidt said in an announcement last week.

“These scams could include bogus products advertised as coronavirus prevention measures or treatments, as well as bogus charities purporting to raise money for coronavirus research or to support coronavirus patients.”

As in all crises and disasters, don’t just give money to anyone who asks, no matter how reputable they may appear. Before making any donations, check out charities on rating sites such as Charity Navigator and Guidestar.

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I’ve tackled various aspects of the coronavirus in recent days. Here are some of them:

  • With so much focus on stocking up at the grocery store, food-safety experts say fruits and vegetables at the supermarket likely are OK to eat, but wash them (and your hands) before consuming. Be especially careful around shared utensils at salad bars and supermarket buffets. Those tongs and serving spoons can be crawling with germs.
  • Many airlines and hotels are waiving fees to reschedule bookings (a good thing), but are digging in their heels when it comes to refunds for canceled trips (a bad thing).
  • With shortages of hand sanitizer in stores, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s fine to mix your own. Just make sure you get the ingredients right. Or you could just use soap and water, which is generally more effective.
  • The coronavirus pandemic could accelerate moves toward so-called telemedicine, allowing patients to be treated remotely by doctors and nurses. One intriguing development: Online eye exams to complement online glasses purchases.

I can’t give advice on the stock market, which saw the Dow plunging on Thursday by the largest point drop ever (more than 2,300 points) and the worst percentage drop (nearly 10%) since 1987. The index rebounded Friday after President Trump declared a national emergency.

But I will say this: Trump is correct when he says stocks will go up again. Yes, they will. But history tells us that can take months or even years in an economic crisis.

The art of investing is the art of managing risk. Which is to say, if you don’t have much appetite for risk, you don’t want much exposure to stocks. Adjust your portfolio accordingly.

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Most financial experts say that during times of market upheaval, the wisest thing individual investors can do is ride it out. This was the advice given during the Great Recession, from which we bounced back, and it holds now as well.

Not that this make things any easier to stomach.

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Speaking of all things coronavirus, here are a couple of other recent stories from our pages worth highlighting:

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Slowing down: California’s economic growth will slow this year as unemployment rises and job creation weakens as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, according to a UCLA forecast. But the university economists stopped short of predicting a recession.

Sinking: The blow from the coronavirus pandemic could be the most devastating in years for the cruise ship industry, possibly surpassing the drop in passenger demand when the Costa Concordia sank off the coast of Italy in 2012 and the Carnival Triumph was left floating powerless in the Gulf of Mexico after an engine fire the following year.

Recalls

Enoki mushrooms produced by Sun Hong Foods are being recalled in California and a handful of other states because of potential listeria contamination. At least four people have died and 36 people have become sick after eating the mushrooms.

Kids’ pajamas and robes sold by Joules USA are being recalled because they fail to meet federal flammability standards for children’s sleepwear. Contact the company for a full refund.

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Spare change

For your listening pleasure, some songs about sickness. Foreigner talks about having “a fever of 103.” Aerosmith knows what it’s like to be “sick as a dog,” while Led Zep laments being “sick again.” On the flip side, here’s Michael Jackson calling for us to “heal the world.”

Stay in touch

Let me know what you think of the newsletter. My email is david.lazarus@latimes.com, or you can find me on Twitter @Davidlaz. Also, tell all your pals to join the party.

Until next time, see you in the Business section.


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