(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in last 3 paras)
SEOUL, March 11 (Yonhap) -- Prosecutors on Wednesday raided about 10 companies involved in the supply of raw materials used to make face masks, stepping up their investigations into suspected mask hoarding amid a prolonged nationwide shortage of the hygiene product caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
The Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office sent about 50 prosecutors and investigators to about 10 suppliers and traders of mask filter fabrics in Seoul and Incheon, west of Seoul, in the morning to search for clues of illegal hoarding of masks, according to informed officials.
They are investigating allegations that the suppliers and traders have attempted to illegally hoard masks for unfair profits by exchanging their raw materials for finished mask products, they said.
Filter fabrics, which are inserted between layers of cloth to block viruses and toxic substances, are a key material in the manufacturing of protective face masks.
Local mask producers have mainly imported filter fabrics from China. With the imports of Chinese filters halted recently, domestic suppliers and traders have had leverage over the mask producers.
Prosecutors are also probing some brokers suspected of intervening in the trade of filter fabrics to drive up their prices.
Prosecutors have reportedly secured clues of suspected offenses by filter fabric suppliers and traders in the process of investigating a number of mask manufacturers and distributors over suspected hoarding in recent weeks.
As part of efforts to increase the supply of masks, the authorities have intensified their crackdown on illegal hoarders, who can face a prison sentence of up to two years or a maximum fine of 50 million won (US$42,140).
The COVID-19 outbreak, which has infected 7,755 people and killed 60 in South Korea as of Wednesday, has caused severe shortages of face masks, forcing the government to introduce a de facto rationing system for the product from this week.
Under the new system, South Koreans are allowed to buy only two face masks per week from pharmacies on designated days of the week.
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae instructed the prosecution last month to closely cooperate with the Korea Customs Service, National Tax Service and the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety in clamping down on any illegal acts of disrupting the distribution of masks and other hygiene products.
Earlier this week, the Fair Trade Commission also launched its own probe into suspected price fixing and other unfair acts by distributors of mask filter fabrics.
Meanwhile, the prosecution said it and the police have so far logged a total of 221 criminal offenses related to the coronavirus outbreak, including 14 indictments. The most common offenses include online mask scams, distribution of false information and leaking of personal information of coronavirus patients and suspected patients, it noted.
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