Coronavirus: Govt cracks down on mask profiteers, retailer Deen Express queried on alleged inflated prices

Complaints from the public alleged that retailers such as Deen Express took advantage of the Wuhan virus situation to sell masks at grossly inflated prices. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - The authorities are cracking down on profiteers, following complaints that some businesses and individuals have been selling face masks for grossly inflated prices amid a surge in demand.

The Government's Price Controller on Thursday (Jan 30) asked a retailer at 313 @ Somerset mall to explain the basis for the selling prices of its masks, giving it until next Monday to respond.

A packet of 10 surgical masks usually costs around $5 and 20 N95 masks cost about $40. But the masks sold at the Orchard Road store, Deen Express, are alleged to cost much more.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said in a statement that a letter of demand was issued to the retailer and it must provide information such as its cost price and profit margins or face a fine, though it did not state how much the shop had been selling masks for. Deen Express could not be reached for comment.

Letters of demand have also been sent to e-commerce platforms Lazada, Carousell and Qoo10 to request information on any potential profiteers on their platforms, MTI said.

If they do not comply, they can be fined up to $10,000 for the first offence, and up to $20,000 for the second and subsequent offences.

"Profiteering is highly irresponsible and damaging in these uncertain times," the ministry said.

MTI will work closely with the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) and the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore to monitor the situation and investigate any unfair and anti-competitive practices.

Consumers can report any errant sellers to Case by calling 6100-0315.

Surgical and N95 masks have become highly sought after in recent weeks as the Wuhan virus - which has killed 170 people and infected more than 7,000 people in China - has prompted consumers to clear shops of products used to prevent its spread.

Singapore's Ministry of Health also announced on Thursday night that the Republic has three more confirmed cases of people down with the virus. All are Chinese nationals from Wuhan in China.

This brings the total number of confirmed cases in Singapore to 13.

Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said at a briefing on Thursday that those seeking to take advantage of the situation would be taken to task.

He also urged consumers not to support or give in to profiteers.

"We do have our means to provide the necessary supplies to Singaporeans," he said.

E-commerce platforms said they will cooperate with the authorities and remove listings if necessary. The online marketplaces said that while they do not regulate prices, they will ensure that sellers do not hike prices of products used as preventative measures against the Wuhan virus to "unreasonable" levels.

Qoo10, which removed a listing on Wednesday for 30 "anti-coronavirus" masks advertised at $10,000, said on Thursday that it will not tolerate merchants who attempt to capitalise and profit from the general public's worry and panic.

"Merchants engaging in any behaviour we suspect to be unethical may face temporary suspension while we further investigate their intentions," said general manager Sam Too.

Those who do not offer their products at prices that are reasonable in the light of prevailing market conditions, or maintain a delivery standard of three to five days, may also face penalties, such as not being eligible to be listed on Qoo10's bestsellers page, said Mr Too.

To help meet high demand for face masks, Qoo10 is encouraging overseas merchants to make more stock available here, as well as directly sourcing and purchasing masks to add to Singapore's supply, he said.

Carousell's vice president of operations Su Lin Tan said sellers listing unreasonable prices will be asked to review them or face being taken down.

The platform is also curating a collection of reasonably-priced items, she said.

Lazada said it has internal measures in place to ensure that sellers maintain reasonable prices for essential items such as face masks and hand sanitisers.

Shopee said that it does not tolerate profiteering or unreasonable price hikes from its sellers, and will keep prices at reasonable levels.

The site has been encouraging its sellers to list at least 1,000 surgical masks to receive incentives such as a free flash deal slot, according to an advertisement seen by The Straits Times.

A spokesman said that the initiative is aimed at providing users an avenue to obtain an ample supply of products.

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