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Mass emergencies give opportunities to hoarders, black marketers, says experts

Half-empty shelves greeted people out to buy essential commodities at a city supermarket on Monday. Nagara Gopal

Half-empty shelves greeted people out to buy essential commodities at a city supermarket on Monday. Nagara Gopal  

‘Cybercriminals and scammers have profited from the scarcity of essential goods’

Mass emergencies resulting in situations like ongoing 21-day lockdown tend to create unusually high demands for essential commodities leading to hoarding and black marketing, experts said on Thursday.

Also read: Coronavirus | Over 8,800 ‘dignity kits’ distributed by NDRF to people affected due to lockdown

They appreciated the steps being taken by the central government to check artificial price rise, black marketing and hoarding of such items of daily needs.

State Helpline numbers | Map of confirmed cases in India

“Mass emergencies tend to create unusually high demands for a list of items over a short run giving opportunities for hoarders. We saw this during the November 2019 pollution crisis in Delhi when masks were hoarded and sold at exorbitant prices. COVID-19 presented an even bigger opportunity for the blackmarketers and initially we saw the price of face masks soaring at price several times the MRP. And it happened not just in India, but across the world,” said Srijan Pal Singh, chief executive officer of APJ abdul Kalam Centre, a non-profit organisation.

He said when the lockdown happened food items of all kinds became an easy target for hoarding.

“And one must look at it not just from the angle of shopkeepers hoarding up, but also what happens at cold storages and also at household level where panic hoarding disrupts market supplies,” said Mr. Singh, author of a book on corruption “The Black Tiger”.

He said the government has time and again been issuing directives against hoarding of goods and blackmarketing, but not everyone seems to be paying heed to them.

Recently, the Union Home Ministry has directed the authorities to take quick and stern action against people indulging in hoarding and black marketing of goods, said Mr. Singh.

He, however, said it is hard to track this crime over a wide range and it needs a new approach.

“For instance, the government can ask users to geotag shops which are blackmarketing on the COVID-19 app it has started,” Singh suggested.

According to Satnam Narang, principal research engineer of Tenable, the U.S.-based cyber exposure company, COVID-19 has proven to be a successful tool for cybercriminals and scammers seeking to make a profit from the scarcity of essential goods.

“Over the last few months, COVID-19 has been on top of the mind for most of the world, enabling opportunistic individuals to capitalize on fears and uncertainties. Whether its cybercriminals, scammers or those seeking to make a profit from the scarcity of essential goods, COVID-19 has proven to be a successful tool and it will continue to serve as one until the end of the pandemic,” he said.

Mr. Narang said, it is important for individuals to seek out information from credible sources, be wary of unsubstantiated cures, refrain from buying masks and purchase essential products from verified sellers or retailers. “What we’ve seen so far from these opportunists is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, I anticipate many more campaigns to come,” he said.

A new research by Satnam highlights how opportunists pushing the sales of masks, hand sanitiser and other essentials are circumventing an advertising ban on Instagram.

Also read | Centre approves COVID-19 emergency package for states, UTs

“These opportunists are not only capitalising on the public’s fears around COVID-19 by offering masks and disinfectant products at inflated prices, they are also capitalising on their goodwill by claiming to donate masks to hospitals in need with every purchase,” Mr. Narang said.

Avimukt Dar, partner of Bengaluru-based Induslaw firm, said, “The government has invoked the Disaster Management Act and as such there are sweeping powers to check black marketeers etc., at least in relation to identified essential commodities, which even include sanitizers and masks and any violation of the act and orders under it has consequences under criminal law.”

“The government has also categorically provided guidelines for continued manufacturing and production of all essential commodities, which are further subject to pricing protections. While it will be difficult to sustain or even attempt the sale of essential commodities in the black market, this may not be the case for certain non-essential commodities such as tobacco products and alcohol, which are being sold at exorbitant prices, given that those businesses are majorly impacted during this time,” he said.

Mr. Dar said resumption of production and supply of alcohol and tobacco is essential.

“The lessons of prohibition are precisely that it leads to black marketing and illicit production of the banned substances. Invariably such practices will lead to corruption as illicit businesses will need to ensure some level of business continuity,” he said.

However, hoarding may be difficult to check and keep track of, at least at the consumer level, Dar said.

“When the crisis first broke out, we saw a case of worldwide panic purchasing and hoarding, which continues even today. The only solution to hoarding (is to ensure adequate) supplies,” he said.

The Centre has on Wednesday asked the states and the union territories to invoke a stringent law to punish those indulging in hoarding and black marketing of essential commodities, saying such acts can’t be ruled out due to the loss of production and labour crisis in the wake of the nationwide lockdown.

Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), under the Disaster Management Act, has allowed manufacture or production, transport and other related supply-chain activities in respect of essential goods like foodstuff, medicines and medical equipment during the 21-day lockdown.

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 12:22:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/mass-emergencies-give-opportunities-to-hoarders-black-marketers-says-experts/article31300709.ece

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