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Seoul gets tough on profiteering on masks, sanitizers


Complaints about suspected illegal profiteering over face masks are skyrocketing after the government opened channels for civil reports in a bid to stamp out those seeking to reap big profits amid concerns over a new coronavirus.

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety on Wednesday opened a section in its homepage and blog for submission of cases concerning market cornering and price gouging of face masks and hand sanitizers. To offer greater accessibility, the ministry created 21 hotlines, responsible for each city and province, to receive petitions.

Over 370 complaints have been lodged via the ministry’s website as of Thursday afternoon, with many reporting unilateral cancellations of face mask orders made online.

Among the complaints, some posted captured images of ethanol bottles, hand sanitizer and face masks, for which sellers excessively jacked up the price at e-commerce sites.

Others reported on a bulk of face masks sold in the black market, to be smuggled to China.

“We will review the contents of the report to confirm the facts, and if it is confirmed, we will investigate and take appropriate measures,” a ministry official said.

Along with the ministry, the Fair Trade Commission, National Tax Service and National Police Agency have formed a joint response team comprising 180 officials to crack down on unfair trading practices on hygienic products.

Vice Health Minister Kim Kang-lip said on Thursday that the government plans to obligate producers and wholesaler of masks and hand disinfectants to report their shipment and sale to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.

If found to have missed reports or made false reports on their illegal activities, they will face a stern legal punishment, he added.

“It is a very exceptional phenomenon that there‘s a difficulty in obtaining a mask at some consumption sites,” Kim told reporters during a briefing on responses to the virus, in the administrative city of Sejong. Currently, the domestic production of masks is about 10 million a day.

Those who take over 300 masks out of the country through ports and airports are required to file with the Korea Customs service for export.

Coupang, the country’s largest e-commerce platform, said it warned sellers who hiked prices and told them to bring prices down to a normal level.

“Coupang doesn’t tolerate the act of raising prices by hoarding urgently needed items. We will suspend sales of products that do not make changes after a warning,” the company’s spokesman said.

By Park Han-na (