SINGAPORE: A contact tracer used NRIC details he had retained from his previous job as a recruiter to illegally redeem 207 reusable face masks given out by the People's Association (PA) at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Emerson Goh Shou En, 32, was given seven months and six weeks' jail and a fine of S$3,000 by a court on Monday (May 10).
He pleaded guilty to three charges of cheating the PA, retaining the personal information of 384 people, and leaving his house during the "circuit breaker" period to redeem the masks. Another two charges were considered in sentencing.
The court heard that Goh was a contact tracer with NTUC FairPrice at the time of the offences.
Before that, he was a recruiter with five companies between 2013 and 2020, publishing job openings and advertisements online to look for suitable candidates.
Individuals would send him resumes with scanned copies of their National Registration Identity Cards (NRIC) as part of their job applications.
Throughout his career in recruiting, Goh did not tell the applicants that he would retain and use the scanned copies of their NRICs for purposes beyond the job applications.
In May 2020, the PA began a third round of a nationwide mask collection exercise as part of efforts to provide residents with enough face masks during the pandemic.
From May 26 to Jun 14 last year, Singapore residents could collect one reusable mask each from designated vending machines across the country.
The machines were automated and allowed people to collect face masks by scanning the barcode on their NRIC, birth certificate or any other Government-issued identification containing a barcode.
No further verification was required after the barcode was scanned, and one face mask was issued per NRIC number.
On May 26, 2020, Goh used his NRIC to collect his mask from a vending machine at Changi Simei Community Club.
Goh realised that there was no further verification required beyond scanning the barcode on his NRIC.
He then decided to scan the barcodes on the copies of NRICs belonging to job applicants he had in his phone to redeem more masks.
Goh returned to the vending machines at the community club three times between 11.37pm on May 26, 2020 and 6.15pm on May 27, 2020, wearing a white cap to hide his face on two of the occasions.
He used NRIC details belonging to 207 people and redeemed the corresponding number of face masks worth S$2,049.30 in total.
The constituency director of Changi Simei CC lodged a police report on May 28, 2020, saying that an unidentified man was captured on closed-circuit television collecting reusable face masks from the vending machines.
Between May 30, 2020 and Jun 3, 2020, six police reports were lodged by victims saying they could not collect their Government-issued face masks as they had already been redeemed by someone else.
The prosecutor called for at least seven months and six weeks' jail and a fine of S$3,000, saying that the case involves exploitation of Government-run automated vending machines that were introduced for greater convenience to Singapore residents.
"Importantly, these face masks were meant for other Singapore citizens seeking to protect themselves and their loved ones from the COVID-19 pandemic," said Deputy Public Prosecutor Yeow Xuan.
"A deterrent sentence is therefore warranted to deter like-minded persons who may be emboldened to exploit future government distribution exercises that are digitised for the convenience of the community."
THERE WERE ENOUGH MASKS AT THAT TIME: LAWYER
Goh's lawyer Riko Isaac said this was an "opportunistic crime" and that his client was "just making use of information that he had with him at that point in time".
He said Goh did not sell or leak the NRIC information for profit or to cause damage, and had withdrawn the face masks "during a time where there was no shortage of face masks".
Goh did not take the masks to sell at inflated prices, but instead wanted to protect himself from COVID-19, said the lawyer.
Mr Isaac also said PA did not suffer a loss as the masks were recovered from Goh's home.
He highlighted Goh's obsessive-compulsive disorder, which results in frequent hand-washing, long baths and using inordinate amounts of soap to wash his hands, but accepted that no contributory or causal link was found between his condition and the offences.
"I will highlight that only six people lodged police reports," said Mr Isaac. "When he went to withdraw the masks, many Singaporeans already purchased masks of their own and this was part of a later Government exercise. By this time there was no shortage of masks."
The judge said there was a need to deter like-minded offenders who might want to exploit such Government distribution exercises, and noted that an Institute of Mental Health report found that Goh was not of unsound mind.