Looking abroad for mask supplies, consumers can’t count on quality

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Looking abroad for mask supplies, consumers can’t count on quality

As if the face mask rationing wasn’t bad enough, Korean consumers are also growing increasingly frustrated with a dearth of legitimate masks from abroad as shady online selling practices and faulty products become increasingly commonplace.

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A face mask sold on AliExpress is advertised as having “KF94” quality even though it has “KN95,” a Chinese standard, printed on it. As demand for face masks surge, sellers are increasingly selling defected masks or falsely advertising them. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Responding to public frustration over finding masks locally, the Korea Customs Service on March 4 temporarily eased some restrictions on direct purchases of foreign medical supplies through the end of June.

The agency’s guidelines for direct purchases of foreign goods now state that masks, hand sanitizer and thermometers valued under $150 (or under $200 for the United States) can now enter the country via direct mail or package delivery without a separate import declaration or requirement.

The agency expects this to drastically reduce the time it takes for those items to clear customs, as they will be exempt from tariffs and surtaxes.

A 40-year-old man told the JoongAng Ilbo that he ordered 50 Chinese masks for 57,000 won ($48.21) from Amazon Japan, and preordered 50 Japanese masks for 113,000 won, also sold out, from Japan’s e-commerce leader Rakuten. The expected delivery date for Chinese masks was March 24 at the earliest, or on April 2 at the latest.

“I don’t know if the quality will be as good as Korean masks,” he said. “But I just bought it because my friend who is a doctor said now is not the time to be picky.”

As the local mask shortage continues, more consumers are searching for the products via foreign markets. But using foreign websites can be challenging, given the weeks-long wait times often involved.

Mask prices are rising worldwide, but the quality of masks remains unclear.

Accurate product descriptions for masks are hard to come by on Amazon, eBay and other e-commerce companies that provide direct purchasing of foreign goods to Korean consumers. Reviews for many of those overseas orders are not overwhelmingly positive, with one commenter writing, “Supposing I was fooled, I had no other choice but to wait anxiously.”

Nine out of every 10 face masks sold on foreign e-commerce websites are Chinese products. Some are advertised as being from Korea, but it’s unlikely they were manufactured here. Search results for “Korean Mask” and “American Mask” mostly return Chinese products, with telltale “KN” marks displayed at the top. Similar to Korea’s “KF” grading system for filtration masks, KN is the Chinese standard.

And defective masks and false information are becoming commonplace.

Out of 10,026 medical masks advertised on eBay as of Tuesday, 2,012 were listed with no manufacturing details. Only 596 could be sourced to legitimate Chinese manufacturers and 64 from Hong Kong manufacturers. It’s unclear where the remainder was manufactured.

Online rumors have also pointed to Chinese online shopping mall AliExpress as a source of Korean masks. But many of the sellers on the e-commerce site are simply using false and misleading keywords, such as “KF94,” to describe Chinese products.

Mask prices have more than doubled since the outbreak of the coronavirus. For a package of 50 face masks listed on Amazon for between $25 and $35 among sellers, reviewers commented that the face masks easily ripped and had “unclear manufacturing information.”

Customers have encountered similar issues in Japanese online shopping malls. Most of the products are from China, and Japanese masks are all sold out and can only be purchased via preorders.

In many cases, orders have been canceled due to the lack of stock. Although Amazon and eBay are monitoring prices to prevent gouging, many sellers have been raising prices on masks regardless of the rules.

Consumers using these sites are encouraged to check reviews and product descriptions carefully before finalizing their purchases, as it’s difficult to get refunds for defective foreign products. Shipping costs, which can vary wildly depending on the seller’s location, are also worth paying close attention to.

Consumers are increasingly using delivery services in the United States to find masks, using the agencies as middlemen to locate the product and ship it to Korea.

BY CHUN YOUNG-SON [kim.yeonah@joongang.co.kr]

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