AAFES data to help combat black market
U.S. military officials in South Korea now have access to detailed ordering and delivery data for AAFES stores, a major step toward combating black marketing throughout the peninsula, Air Force officials said last week.
The close-up look into AAFES’ warehousing system will help military investigators spot over-ordering and re-routed deliveries, part of the pattern that illegally stocks South Korean stores with American goods, a U.S. Forces Korea military data management official said Wednesday.
Yet the data collection — and the customized-computer analysis it feeds — still is far from complete, Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Hunt said.
That’s because the Army and Air Force Exchange Service is still about a year away from tracking individual sales at each store cash register, Hunt said.
Additionally, efforts to track on-base liquor sales with a special card reader have stalled in recent months because of budget constraints, Hunt said. Only three machines are in operation at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. Requests to fund the $3,000 machines at stores in Area I and Area III are pending, he said.
Still, peering into AAFES’ ordering and delivery system boosts the military’s ability to spot potential black market activity, said Air Force Lt. Col. William Brooks, chief of USFK’s Customs Division.
It means investigators can see, for example, an abundance of baby formula going to stores that serve single soldiers, Hunt said. The military can then pull paper records to see whether the inventory goes where it should - from the customs docks to the storeroom to individual shopping bags, he said.
“You can see something immediately,” Brooks added.
CASTAR stands for computer-assisted sales tracking and reporting. The program, created by USFK, uses Homeland Security technology to pinpoint suspicious shopping trends, such as when a customer repeatedly buys too many hot dogs and too few buns.
Already, shopping receipts from the 12 commissaries throughout South Korea go into the system. The commissaries are run by the Defense Commissary Agency and have a different cash register system.
Liquor sales at the three AAFES shoppettes on Yongsan also go into the mix, Hunt said. For the past two weeks, those base convenience stores have been tracking vitamin and beer sales, he said.
The precision of the tracking system depends on spotting abnormal shopping habits versus normal habits. Establishing that history takes a few weeks, Hunt said.
“We just started it now, but we need to build up the data,” Hunt said. “We think very soon, we’ll start to see odd patterns.”
Two recent black-marketing schemes that garnered headlines relied more on AAFES’ staff discovering suspicious activity and combined investigations with Korean customs officials, Brooks said.
In January, two AAFES employees were convicted of moving about 21,000 cases of beer from the U.S. Army’s Camp Long into the black market. A more recent case involved the investigation of nearly two dozen people suspected of a massive operation that moved 25,000 cases of beer and 633 tons of food, all expired, into illegal sales.
Last year, a military study estimated as much as 9 percent of all commissary sales could be related to black marketing. The study estimated up to $7.2 million of grocery sales in 2005 could be black marketing, with a street value of $20.4 million, according to data available at the time.