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Missouri attorney general sues Walgreens for overcharging customers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has a message for every Missourian who shops at Walgreens: “Double and triple check the prices on the shelves and compare them with your receipts.”

That’s because, he says, Walgreens often overcharges.

Koster filed a civil suit this morning against Walgreens, the nation's largest pharmacy, contending that it is violating the state’s consumer-protection laws by “engaging in false, misleading and deceptive advertising and pricing schemes.”

Walgreens “routinely charged customers higher prices than what was displayed on the shelves,’’ Koster said at a news conference this morning at his St. Louis office.

His proof, Koster said, was collected by at least a half dozen  staff investigators who fanned out in June and July to visit eight Walgreens in five cities all over the state, including two locations in St. Louis.

“Our findings were disturbing,” he said. “Investigators documented overcharges and deceptive price tags in nearly every store we inspected. We made 205 purchases, and we were overcharged 43 times.”

The overcharges ranged from a few cents to $15, he said. In some cases, sale or clearance prices were not honored – and the full price was charged instead.

Koster was joined by Joe Bindbeutel, who heads his office’s consumer division, and Assistant Attorney General Kristin A. Underwood, who was involved in the probe.

In a statement, Walgreens replied: "We have a 112-year history of acting in our customers' best interests, and that will continue to be our focus. While we won’t comment on the complaint itself, we were disappointed and disagree with the attorney general's comments. However, we are prepared to have a constructive dialogue about the issues he raised and address any appropriate concerns."

Other states already have filed suit

Missouri joins Wisconsin and California in suing Walgreens over false pricing, Koster said, adding that his office’s involvement stemmed from consumer complaints.

“This level of consumer deception is inexcusable from a corporation as sophisticated as Walgreens,” Koster said. “In fact, it’s appalling. Consumers have a right to expect that the price they pay at the register is the same price that’s displayed on the shelf.”

Koster said that another “big box retailer’’ was reviewed for comparison, and “we found nowhere near the deceptive practices that were found here.”

He asserted that he was concerned that the overcharging was an intentional practice. Koster said he wanted to determine if local store operators were at fault or the chain's top executives ordered these practices.

If found guilty, Walgreens would face a fine of $1,000 a violation, Koster said. “But this lawsuit is no longer about money. It is going to cost Walgreens thousands of times more to fix this problem than I could ever dream up in court.”

Koster contended that the issue “has gotten under my skin and Walgreens has now ended up on my to-do list’’ because the overcharged victims likely include the elderly and the ill, who may frequent Walgreens for medicines and other health care products.

“This is so far over the line that we intend to fix it,’’ said Koster,  a Democrat running for governor in 2016. “If we have to send investigators up and down the aisles for the next 3 and ½ years, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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