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Overpriced toilet paper, $12 masks: Missourians complain about coronavirus price-gouging

Overpriced toilet paper, $12 masks: Missourians complain about coronavirus price-gouging

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JEFFERSON CITY — Missourians across the state are reporting cases of inflated prices for food, toilet paper and hand sanitizer to the attorney general’s office.

The office received more than 250 complaints of price gouging from March 1 to March 24, according to records obtained by the Post-Dispatch through a Sunshine Law request.

There were over 50 reports of overpriced toilet paper being sold across Missouri. People lodged complaints about dollar stores and grocery stores selling it at abnormally high prices. Some third-party sellers on Facebook and Amazon were accused of selling individual rolls for as much as $10.

Over 70 complaints accused stores of raising prices on groceries, mostly for staples like eggs and meat. About a dozen complaints mentioned hand sanitizer.

This comes amid a spike in demand for basic necessities and some reports of bare shelves. Along with state attorneys general, the FBI has also received hundreds of complaints nationwide about fraudulent practices and scams seeking to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic.

In one particularly egregious example, the FBI seized tens of thousands of masks, gloves and protective equipment from a man living in New York. He was hoarding and selling the gear at inflated prices, according to prosecutors.

Chris Nuelle, spokesman for Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office, said Missouri’s price-gouging law is different than laws in some other states, which require a set percentage or price increase for the attorney general to take action.

Enforcement is “essentially up to the attorney general’s office discretion on a case to case basis,” Nuelle said in an email. He said staff has contacted or will contact each person who filed a complaint.

Nuelle said many of the complaints “relate to small dollar increases in food items, and it’s important for Missourians to remember that there will be some market fluctuations as supply and demand fluctuate, particularly when it relates to food.”

He said an agreement with the Missouri Grocers Association, an industry group, will allow the office to better monitor price fluctuations and inquire of grocers.

“In terms of enforcement action,” he said, “we’re looking at the most egregious examples which typically come from third party sellers, i.e. someone who buys up a huge supply of masks or toilet paper and then turns around and sells them individually for a huge markup.”

Schmitt issued a cease-and-desist letter to a Springfield, Missouri, man who the attorney general’s office said was selling N95 respirator masks at inflated prices. The office has also issued eight civil investigative demands to Amazon sellers based in Missouri, Nuelle said.

A handful of price-gouging complaints in Missouri concerned protective equipment.

There were five reports of N95 respirator masks being sold at high prices. Three were complaints about sellers advertising on sites such as eBay, with reported prices as high as $69.90 for a single mask. The masks normally retail for around $1, according to Buzzfeed News.

EBay told sellers in early March that it would reject listings for N95 masks and was working to remove listings with inflated prices. Numerous masks were still listed for sale Thursday.

The attorney general also received two reports of a gun-supply store in St. Peters selling individual masks for $12 a piece. The complaints about Tactical (expletive), which sells gun parts and tactical supplies, included a link to a page on the store’s website that has apparently been removed. A March 15 Facebook post from the page “Mrgunsandgear” also said the store would be selling masks soon and linked to its website.

The store didn’t respond to requests for comment, and a search of its website showed no listings for N95 masks Thursday.

Nuelle said he wasn’t aware of any enforcement action against the gun store, but said anyone with more information should contact the attorney general.

“Supplies like personal protective equipment and sanitizing products are in short supply and high demand,” Schmitt said in a statement, adding that front-line workers should have priority access. “Missourians are urged not to hoard items like face masks and sanitizing products.”

Mixed in with the price-gouging complaints were also a few reports of dubious products being marketed as protection from COVID-19.

One complaint said Theta Float Spa in Springfield was advertising a $20 elderberry product on Facebook by claiming that it was “scientifically shown” to protect against the coronavirus.

An employee told the Post-Dispatch on Thursday that the spa had taken the post down after being told the elderberry claim was pseudoscience.

There hasn’t been any significant research into whether elderberry can prevent or cure COVID-19, according to a Reuters fact-check.

Price gouging complaints can be reported on the Missouri attorney general’s website or by calling 800-392-8222.

Jack Suntrup of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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