Argentines become citizen-cops with smartphone app

| Zoom

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) - A free smartphone application has encouraged more than 70,000 Argentines to become citizen-cops as they shop.

Argentina's government blames escalating inflation on speculators and greedy businesses, and has pressured leading supermarket chains to keep selling more than 80 key products at fixed prices. President Cristina Fernandez wants citizens to report any overpriced items to the consumer protection agency.

"We want you to protect what's yours, because if not the others will win out every single day," the president said in a national address this week.

Now a free app designed by two college students is helping consumers do just that by scanning bar codes to find evidence of overpricing. The "Precios OK" software appears to be an instant hit, with downloads in Argentina surpassing that of "Candy Crush" and "Instagram" in the Android store this week.

Independent economists say supermarkets are being scapegoated, and that government efforts to control the economy are making the crisis worse. A typical supermarket stocks 40,000 or more products, and price shocks are reverberating throughout the economy.

But consumers are gladly signing up to do their part as news of the app spreads on social media.

"You can go checking the prices," marveled Analia Becherini, who learned of the app on Twitter. "You don't even have to make any phone calls. If you want to file a complaint, you can do it online, in real time."

The software was designed by a pair of computer engineering students at the University of Buenos Aires, Yamila Fraiman and Alejandro Torrado, who previously won an award for a different app that helps drivers find parking spaces in the Argentine capital.

"In Argentina it's really useful with people wanting to watch their pockets right now," said Fraiman, 24. "We are not really going through the best of times, and people really need to be attentive when they go shopping."

President Fernandez praised the tool during a national address this week after her aides learned of it. She said it takes just five minutes to download and is easy to use. "It's time for everyone to feel empowered when they shop in their neighborhood," she said.

Many Argentines have lost confidence in their economy, which is closely tied to dollar prices. For nearly two years, the government has used its central bank reserves to pay off foreign debts and fund a vast expansion in government spending. But with foreign currency reserves dropping by half to $27.8 billion, it is running out of maneuvering room.

Public works are being suspended, the economy is in retreat and many businesses are struggling to figure out how to price their products without selling at a loss. Then the Central Bank stopped selling dollars last month, prompting a sudden 20 percent currency devaluation and accelerating the inflation that already topped 28 percent last year.

Economist Dante Sica of said Thursday that the app is a great little tool, but it alone can't end the turmoil, in part because the price controls cover only a tiny fraction of the economy, and because businesses quickly find ways to maintain profits by offering products in different sizes, flavors and packages.

The "protected prices" campaign "has already proven to be a failing strategy," he said.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Top Stories

  • Failing
    So far, King County voters are rejecting higher car tab fees to save buses

  • Minimum Age Debate
    There's a push to raise the age from 18 to 21 in order to legally buy tobacco

  • Time for Change
    Shannon Drayer is expecting some changes after the Mariners' eighth straight loss
ATTENTION COMMENTERS: We've changed our comments, but want to keep you in the conversation.
Please login below with your Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Disqus account. Existing MyNorthwest account holders will need to create a new Disqus account or use one of the social logins provided below. Thank you.
comments powered by Disqus
Sign up for breaking news e-mail alerts from
In the community
Do you know a student who stands out in the classroom, school and community?
Help make their dreams come true by nominating them for a $1,000 scholarship and a chance to earn a $10,000 Grand Prize. Brought to you by KIRO Radio and Comprehensive Wealth Management.

Do you know an exceptional citizen who has impacted and inspired others?
KIRO Radio and WSECU would like to recognize six oustanding citizens this year. Nominate them to be recognized and to receive a $2,000 charitable grant.