Commissaries in S. Korea trying to shed light on black market
May 28, 2006
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — More than 9 percent of all grocery sales at U.S. military bases in South Korea could be feeding the black market, according to a military analysis using computer projections.
A recently developed computer program compares a relatively small number of suspicious shoppers — 117 — with the regular shopping habits of the almost 50,000 people with authorized access to U.S. commissaries here.
Overall projections based on the comparisons show an estimated 2 million pounds of short ribs, 1 million individual hot dogs, a quarter-million packages of cheese and tens of thousands of other goods could be leaving U.S. commissaries yearly for a black-market feast.
The analysis estimates up to $7.2 million of items sold in 2005 could be “excessive shopping,” the term military officials use as a possible indicator of black-market activity. Those items could have a street value of up to $20.4 million, according to the data.
The projections indicate the possible size and scope of black marketing activity, though officials warn the results do not reflect actual numbers.
They also reveal some of the challenges of tracking which shoppers are potential black marketers and which ones might just really like hot dogs.
“It’s a computer model based off of what we think is a problem,” said Air Force Maj. Resti Andin, U.S. Forces Korea customs chief.
The analysis also shows how U.S. military investigators and commanders are working to estimate and tackle the problem.
“It will train us on what to look for,” Andin said.
The data comes from a new computer system built with Homeland Security technology that lets investigators study the shopping habits of everyone with access to the peninsula’s 12 Defense Commissary Agency stores.
“It’s still developing,” said Army Lt. Col. Andre K. Curry, U.S. Forces Korea deputy provost marshal. “But if you have certain (suspected) groups, we’re able to look at those sales.”
Korean Custom Service officials came from across South Korea on Tuesday for a meeting at Yongsan to work on combined strategies to fight the buying-selling schemes. For the first time in recent history, Andin said, officials from USFK law enforcement, Korean customs, the commissaries and Army and Air Force Exchange Stores met for a formal policy meeting.
They’re trying to establish an information-sharing system, said Kim Se-Hoon, a chief investigator at Korea’s customs headquarters in Daejeon.
They’re also trying to devise combined goals to target black-market distribution rings, said Kim and Curry. Kim said the need for that goal became more obvious to both sides when one case in 2005 led investigators to charge 17 South Koreans, including an AAFES worker, with putting 56,000 cases of American beer on the South Korean market.
Beer and other alcohol sales make up most of the black-market sales off-base, he said. The items come from AAFES stores and shoppettes lacking the sophistication to track electronically the quantity, inventory and amount of each purchase of each shopper. The worldwide system AAFES is working on to do this will take years, officials have said.
In South Korea, military officials are bridging that gap at exchange stores by increasing inventory security staff and buying two mobile units that can track beer and liquor sales at outlets throughout the country.
In 2005, military investigators began creating a database to constantly compares normal shopping trends with those pointing to black marketing. For example, the program can select the shopper that might be buying hot dogs several times a week without ever buying hot dog buns.
Analyzing such data produced that estimate that 9.4 percent of all commissary sales may be related to black marketing. Still, Andin said, it’s just a model, one way to understand how goods get from on-base grocery stores to off-base markets.
Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this story.
The numbers are beginning to add up
The computer program the U.S. military is using to track purchases at commissaries in South Korea is meant to identify people who buy curious amounts of popular black-market items.
The technology is so precise that it can spot the childless person who routinely buys baby food and formula. It can pick out the retired officer who just happens to cash out in the same checkout lane — manned by the same cashier — during every shopping excursion.
One analysis of this data estimates that as many as 9.4 percent of shoppers at the 12 commissaries in South Korea could be involved in black marketing.
Investigators found 117 people who appeared to be buying far beyond the appetites of their households from January to mid-November last year. In those cases alone, the shoppers bought a combined:
12,848 packages of hot dogs6,646 pounds of short ribs2,561 bags of rice1,154 packages of beef patties802 jars of honey555 packs of cheese420 cans of baby formula212 bottles of vitaminsThose shoppers were confronted about their actions and, in 25 cases, punishments were warranted, according to the analysis.
A single active-duty soldier, rank of E-4, bought 210 six-packs of soda and 1,360 pounds of rice in six months. That person received an Article 15.A civilian spouse with a family size of two bought 138 packages of hot dogs and 39 bottles of honey in six months. That person’s ration card was suspended for six months.A military widow with a family size of two bought 340 pounds of rice, 248 packs of hot dogs and 225 packs of ground beef in four months. That person’s ration card was suspended for six months.Military investigators also used these 117 cases to compare suspected illegal shopping habits against the thousands of grocery trips by the nearly 50,000 people who shop at the commissaries. That comparison shows that some sales throughout the same time frame could also involve excess shopping, to the amounts of: