Hixson man faces price-gouging investigation for attempt to profit from sanitizer sales amid coronavirus outbreak

Staff photo by Mary Fortune / Volunteers from a local church load donated boxes of hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and face masks into a U-Haul truck.

A local church and representatives of the Tennessee Attorney General's Office hauled away box after box of hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and medical masks from Matt Colvin's home and storage units on Sunday morning, leaving the Hixson man to contemplate what comes next.

"Every facet of my personal and business life has been laid bare online," said Colvin, sitting in the dark on the floor of a storage unit. "I'm worried about charges."

Colvin, 36, was featured in the New York Times on Saturday in a story about the massive stash of hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and face masks he and his 21-year-old brother picked up in bulk in early March to resell for a profit on his Amazon store as coronavirus concerns grew.

When Amazon shut him down on March 5 to prevent him from cashing in on a public health crisis, Colvin thought he'd become the face of frustrated online sellers who are stuck with in-demand inventory they can't move. Instead, he became the face of profiteering in a time of fear, the target of death threats, pranks and a relentless barrage of hate both online and off.

"At the end of the day, I'm sorry I bought all this stuff, not just because of how it's affected me but because of how things have changed since I bought it," Colvin said on Sunday. "I know I'm splitting hairs here, but I wasn't selling this stuff after March 5. If I had known how things would be now, I wouldn't have touched any of this. There's no way."

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The church that took the inventory plans to distribute the supplies to first responders - the Chattanooga Police Department, Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, Chattanooga Fire Department and others. But the church doesn't want to be named.

"They're worried about the backlash," Colvin said. "I don't blame them."

The church offered to buy the supplies, but Colvin didn't want the money, said an associate pastor, who asked not to be named.

Representatives of the Tennessee Attorney General's Office loaded about one-third of the supplies into a black pick-up truck bound for Kentucky, where the brothers originally bought it. The rest will go to the local church.

The investigation of Colvin and his 21-year-old brother on suspicion of price gouging is ongoing, according to a release from the Tennessee attorney general.

"We will not tolerate price gouging in this time of exceptional need, and we will take aggressive action to stop it," reads a statement from Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III's office. "During this pandemic, we ask that you report suspicious activity to the Division of Consumer Affairs and refrain from threatening or hostile communication with individuals or businesses you may suspect are price gouging."

Under Tennessee law, the Attorney General's Office can put a stop to price gouging and seek refunds for consumers. The courts may also impose civil penalties against price gougers for every violation, up to $1,000 per violation, or $10,000 for practices targeting the elderly, and seek consumer restitution.

They had sold just a few hundred bottles of hand sanitizer of the more than 17,000 they had amassed when Amazon shut them down, Colvin said.

He would not go into detail about how much he had made from the sales, but he reportedly told the New York Times he'd sold 300 bottles at between $8 and $70 a bottle.

It's too early in the investigation to know how the cooperation of Colvin and his brother, who did most of the traveling and buying of the products across Tennessee and Kentucky, will influence the outcome of the investigation, said Samantha Fisher, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Attorney General's Office.

"So far, they have been cooperative," she said. "Generally, we take the amount of cooperation into account when considering a resolution."

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.