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Attorneys general on lookout for price gouging amid coronavirus

Posted at 4:00 AM, Mar 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-19 07:48:24-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — With so many products sold out in stores, some people are going online to find the toilet paper, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer they need. And attorneys general on both sides of the state line already are hearing complaints of price gouging.

Some of the sites shoppers are headed to include Amazon, eBay and Facebook Marketplace, where the 41 Action News Investigators found several posts in the metro for household cleaning bundles.

Most of those were reasonably priced, but that's not the case everywhere.

A package of toilet paper that normally goes for $5 could be found on eBay at a starting price of $30, for example. By Wednesday afternoon, a similar package was up to $50 on the site.

"So far the bulk of the problems that have been brought to our attention involve exactly what you would expect: hand sanitizer, cleaners and wipes and toilet paper," Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt told 41 Action News.

The Kansas Attorney General's Office is tracking complaints about price gouging. The state's anti-profiteering statute went into effect after Gov. Laura Kelly declared a state of emergency.

"For any necessary goods and services, it's unlawful for a vendor to unjustifiably raise the price by more than 25 percent," Schmidt said.

The price can't be unjustifiably higher than it was on March 11. However, retailers are allowed to pass through their actual costs if they weren't the cause of the price increase.

The AG's office said Facebook and Amazon are bolstering efforts to fight price gouging.

"They've allowed us to have some direct access to their anti-fraud individuals," Schmidt said, "As we or others bring specific circumstances to their attention, they take a quick look, and if they agree that what's happening is unlawful, they'll take action to shut it down."

The Missouri Attorney General's Office echoed the praise.

"We're in daily contact with folks from Facebook, from Amazon, from other platforms," Missouri First Assistant Attorney General Tom Albus said, "and they're trying to root it out before it gets to the regulators as well."

On the Missouri side, the attorney general's office can prosecute price gouging even if there's no emergency declaration from the governor. It also differs from Kansas in that there's no specific percentage increase deemed to be price gouging.

Staff overseeing consumer protection are hopeful education can stop people from hiking prices and ending up in court.

"When you bring this information to somebody like that and says this is beyond the free market... this is price gouging, and it needs to stop, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of Missourians would say I didn't realize the greater context and agree to stop that course of conduct," Albus said.

Penalties for price gouging can be steep. In Missouri, a violation carries a $1,000 penalty, and there could be criminal charges if the case is severe. In Kansas, people could face civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation.

Kansans can file price gouging complaints online, or by calling 800-432-2310. Missouri residents can also report issues online or at 800-392-8222.