A Chandler man who runs a retail store for preppers denied on Tuesday that he's deceiving the public about coronavirus treatments, and said his reply to accusations by the state Attorney General is: "Kiss my ass."
Prepper's Discount at 6500 West Frye Road in Chandler this week became one of the latest businesses accused by AG Mark Brnovich in recent days of scamming the public on coronavirus-related products and services.
Since mid-March, Brnovich has warned the public about scams involving bogus offers of working from home, con artists phishing for personal data in order to issue "government checks," fraudsters pretending to be with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and gyms that require in-person visits to cancel monthly membership charges. His office devoted a special web page dedicated to the scams.
On Monday, Brnovich put out a press release regarding a cease-and-desist letter the office sent to Carsten Loelki of YiLo Superstore in Phoenix, a state-authorized medical-marijuana dispensary, demanding that Loelki stop making false claims about a "Coronav Immunization Stabilizer Tincture" that included instructions on how to use it "should you come down with a life threatening virus."
Today, a fresh press release announced another cease-and-desist order, this one aimed at Prepper's Discount. One of its ads for a combination package of masks and immunity-boosting pills "deceptively implies it could provide immunity from COVID-19," the AG's Office said. The release included a recent promotion from the store's website that featured masks, such as a heavy-duty 3M mask, that come with "immunity pills." A second ad provided by the AG's office showed the store offered "10 free immunity tablets" along with a two-pack of masks.
"Advertising 'Instant Immunity Tablets' in this manner implies that the product would assist in the prevention or treatment of COVID-19, and protect against the novel coronavirus," reads the AG's April 6 cease-and-desist letter to Prepper's Discount. The letter, signed by Stephanie Elliott, senior litigation counsel, cautions that no treatment or prevention for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that "suggesting that a product could provide instant immunity from COVID-19 creates a misrepresentation and a false promise of a medical preventative or cure."
Elliott points out that violations of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act could lead to civil sanctions and restitution orders, and gives the store until 5 p.m. today to inform the AG's Office that it has complied with the order to stop the advertisement.
The owner of Prepper's Discount said he hadn't seen the cease-and-desist letter before Phoenix New Times called — he later found an email with it in his spam folder. The owner, Randy, who declined to give his last name, said that not only is the state's demand a moot point by now, since he's been out of masks for more than a week, but that he was doing nothing wrong or unethical.
The pills were commonly available dietary supplements that he had stocked in the store called "Instant Immunity." They contain Vitamin C, echinacea, and other herbal supplements. He had "four of five bottles" of the pills and figured "let's give them away" to the people buying up masks. It's not like he needed any help selling the masks, he noted, which flew off the shelves in March.
True, he did get a few calls from people saying it was "bullshit" that he was promoting "immunity" pills, but Randy said he never once thought anyone would actually believe the pills provide immunity to COVID-19. They're labeled as supplements that will "boost your immune system," he said. "It certainly can't hurt."
In the last couple of days, he changed the web page and added a disclaimer, even though he's out of masks.
Randy said stores like his have become more important in recent weeks, with nearly everyone turning into a prepper as the pandemic crisis enveloped the country. He's sold hundreds of masks of all kinds and thousands of containers of freeze-dried food in recent weeks.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"Our goal is to make sure our customers are prepared," Randy said. "The AG's Office says I'm trying to just make a buck? You know what? [They] can kiss my ass."
"We definitely don't gouge people," he added.
Randy said he's a devout Christian like "78 percent" of all preppers, and as such he believes the Bible instructs people to prepare for bad times and that men must "take the role as leader" for their wives and kids. He and his parents are very well prepped. So are some of his most enthusiastic prepper customers, who are outfitted with extra freezers and all manner of gear, and are now "sitting back, going 'Oh, tonight, I'm going to have filet mignon.'"
Randy said he forwarded the AG's letter to his attorney, "and they have started prepping for defamation if they move forward with this incorrect claim."