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DEFENDERS: Missouri sets record for price gouging complaints in 2020


In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, state attorneys general are actively investigating price gouging cases across the United States.

The sudden rise in complaints was unprecedented for many offices.

"We knew very early on, through experience that this was something our office was going to see, and we're going to see a spike in complaints," Eric Schmitt, Missouri Attorney General, said. "We had a lot of our team sort of transition to go after those folks."

Missouri saw price gouging complaints skyrocket for 2020. From January to July, Missourians reported 1,879 complaints.

Missouri Attorney General's Office

For the same time frame in 2019, Missourians reported nine price gouging complaints.

Missouri Attorney General's Office

The complaints ranged anywhere from milk, to toilet paper to personal protective equipment.

Schmitt said his office looked into every single complaint but not every complaint was truly price gouging.

"You might see milk go up a little bit, but that isn't necessarily price gouging. You look at normal market factors too, " Schmitt said. "When you see things like medical supplies going up five to 10 times what they normally are, that's a big red flag for us."

Out of the thousands of price gouging complaints the office received only a small amount led to further action. Eleven cease and desist letters were issued, nine subpoenas were given and two lawsuits were filed.

Schmitt said even though every complaint didn't end up in court, many of them were resolved in other ways, like cease and desist letters. Items were pulled from shelves or had prices adjusted, Schmitt added.

Currently, Missouri's price gouging law prohibits individuals and businesses from substantially raising their prices for the necessities of life during an emergency. Those who violate the price gouging provisions can face penalties of up to $1,000 per violation.

Looking across the country, every state has different price gouging laws. Some have a set percentage that's considered price gouging. Kansas has a price-gouging law that makes it illegal for any supplier of a "necessary property or service" to "profiteer from a disaster" by charging 25% or more than the pre-disaster price for such goods or services.

Schmitt said he believes his office could fair better in court than other attorneys general.

"We probably have some additional tools that other states don't have because others use mathematical formulas. It allows us to take in a fuller breadth of information," Schmitt said. "It's not one-size-fits-all, that's probably the biggest benefit we have right now."

Moving forward, Schmitt believes the state's price gouging law is good but open to change if lawmakers see fit. Schmitt added relationships with third-party marketplaces like Amazon and Facebook helped his office.

"We formed relationships with more than 140 organizations including the Missouri Grocers Association, Missouri Hospital Association. We were able to have a relationship that was really important, they alerted us to possible price gouging."

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Deborah Kendrick

Deborah is a weekday evening anchor and investigative reporter for ABC 17 News.


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