Crack down on bad apples and eliminate consumer fraud
【譯文】The Consumer Council has publicly named four pharmacies in Causeway Bay and reprimanded them for their unscrupulous sales practices that forced residents and tourists to shell out 10 to 16 times more than they thought they would pay. The malpractices use misleading pricing units, such as from "catty" to "tael", and from "tael" to "mace". The persons in charge of these pharmacies have been impervious to repeated advice, and some pharmacies have even changed their names and continued to operate as usual after being reprimanded. This kind of organised fraud has become a cancer on Hong Kong's commercial reputation. Law enforcement agencies must enforce the law strictly, investigate the cases thoroughly, collect the evidence rigorously, and punish the culprits behind the scenes with more serious offences and heavier penalties, so as to serve a warning to others and to safeguard Hong Kong's business environment and good reputation.
The pharmacies involved are all located in Causeway Bay, obviously targeting the market segmentation of tourists, and the number of related complaints has also increased substantially after the resumption of normal travel this year. In the first eight months of this year alone, 49 relevant complaints have been recorded, exceeding the 26 complaints in the whole of last year, involving both residents and tourists from Chinese Mainland and Singapore. Worse still, when the persons in charge of the pharmacies were requested to meet the representatives of the Consumer Council, some refused to do so. Even though some promised to improve their sales practices and properly handle the complaints, the Consumer Council continued to receive complaints against those pharmacies concerned, reflecting that the malpractice persists. Some even continue to run the business in the original location but under a new company name, in an attempt to break off the relationship with previous complaint cases.
Hong Kong's reputation as a shopping paradise is attributed to the goodwill of the merchants in terms of offering clear prices and treating customers of different ages honestly, which has continuously attracted tourists to consume in Hong Kong. However, as the saying goes, "one rotten apple spoils the barrel". Even a small number of unscrupulous businessmen intentionally obtain benefits by fraudulent practices, it will leave tourists with a very bad impression of Hong Kong and deal a blow to the reputation of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has already put in place legislation to combat this kind of crime. Under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance, any person who applies a false trade description to any goods in the course of trade or business commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a maximum fine of $500,000 and imprisonment for five years. In the past, the Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) repeatedly took enforcement actions and arrested sales clerks who committed crimes by changing "catty" into "tael". However, the persistence of the malpractice proves that some people behind the scenes can reap huge profits, and tougher enforcement actions must be taken to combat the problem.
First of all, the culprits behind the scenes must be severely punished. The C&ED usually arrests the frontline sales clerks in enforcement of the Trade Descriptions Ordinance, because it is the clerks who communicate directly with customers, while the directors and shareholders of the pharmacies hide behind the scenes, and as long as they plead ignorance, it is difficult to incriminate them. In this regard, the C&ED should cooperate with the police and other law-enforcement agencies to conduct in-depth investigations into the relationship between the shop clerks and the directors and shareholders, as well as their records of contact and money exchanges, etc., so as to find evidence to severely punish the culprits behind the scenes.
Secondly, it is necessary to study whether such cases can be charged with more serious offences. Since the amendment of the Trade Descriptions Ordinance in July 2013, the heaviest sentence handed down in a case was 21 months and 27 days of imprisonment, which is a far cry from the maximum penalty of five years of imprisonment. From the modus operandi of the pharmacies involved, it can be clearly drawn that the pharmacies concerned have been committing the offences systematically over a long period of time, and it is not a one-off act, nor is it the personal behaviour of the sales clerks. There is reason to believe that the culprits behind the crime have trained the shop clerks how to answer questions and process the medicines quickly, and offered them a high commission to attract them to commit the crime. There is legal advice that this is already a form of organised fraud. If the police can conduct an in-depth investigation and find evidence of the offence, they can charge the persons in charge with the offence of fraud under section 16A of the Theft Ordinance, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years of imprisonment.
Deceiving customers with despicable sales practices seriously damages Hong Kong's reputation. A handful of lawbreakers, for their own selfish purposes, have turned Hong Kong into a loser. This is a very serious offence and everyone should detest it. Law enforcement agencies should carefully study the law and take practical enforcement actions to severely punish the culprits behind the malpractice, so as to prevent its recurrence.