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Hong Kong Customs arrest coronavirus profiteers

Two retailers have been arrested for trying to profit from the coronavirus crisis after spot checks by Hong Kong Customs staff.

In a territory-wide enforcement campaign dubbed Guardian launched on January 27, customs officers have been inspecting retailers selling surgical masks and other items that consumers might buy to protect themselves from coronavirus transmission.  

After 18 days, the operation has seen more than 1900 officers mobilised to conduct more than 12,000 inspections at retail spots in various parts of Hong Kong to ensure protective items sold in the market comply with the TDO and the Consumer Goods Safety Ordinance (CGSO).

Last week, officers made a test buy of normal saline solution at a Mong Kok pharmacy following suspicions that some pharmacies in the suburb were suspected of engaging in unfair trade practices. Subsequently, one salesman and a director of the company, both aged 30, were arrested on suspicion of engaging in unfair trade practices, in contravention of the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (TDO). 

The officer was sold normal saline in plastic bottles from a display where it was labelled as “0.9% sodium chloride” and “solution for irrigation”.

“Each bottled in containers of 1000ml, the normal saline was sold at a price of $25 per bottle and five for $100,” said a customs official in a statement. “A self-added leaflet, claiming that the normal saline could be used for hand and floor cleaning, was put on the carton.”

Given that the description on the leaflet was not in line with the product description on the bottle, it was suspected to be a violation of the TDO.

Officers seized 23 bottles of normal saline with an estimated market value of about HK$575 (US$74). The product will be tested at the Government Laboratory to establish its composition and safety.

Customs said it plans to continue Operation Guardian and will step up enforcement actions to combat activities that are in violation of the relevant ordinances. 

“Customs sternly reminds traders not to take advantage of the current situation and not to sell products using unfair trade practices,” an official said in a statement. 

“They must also not sell products with false origins or false trademarks, nor must they sell unsafe consumer goods. Immediate law enforcement actions will be taken and prosecutions will be made with sufficient evidence.”

Offenders face a maximum penalty upon conviction of a $500,000 fine and up to five years in jail under TDO regulations.

Under the CGSO, it is an offence to import, manufacture or supply consumer goods unless the goods comply with the general safety requirements for consumer goods. The maximum penalty for that is a fine of $100,000 and imprisonment for one year on first conviction, and $500,000 and imprisonment for two years on a subsequent conviction.

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