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Front-line officers gear up to fight illegal guesthouses (with photos)

     People wandering around with shopping bags, milk powder cans, maps and suitcases may not be tourists. They may be members of the Office of the Licensing Authority (OLA) of the Home Affairs Department (HAD) who are undergoing a decoy law enforcement operation to combat illegal guesthouses.

     All along, the OLA has spared no effort in combating illegal guesthouses. Apart from conducting large-scale joint operations with relevant government departments, the authority also mounts decoy operations day and night, during or outside office hours, as well as in the Christmas and New Year holidays. OLA Licensing Inspector Ice is one of the front-line members of this law enforcement team.
     Facing unscrupulous operators who are on high alert, Ice is still tough enough to rise up to challenges without fear as she is always well prepared before action.

     "We have to know the clientele of a guesthouse before contemplating what to do next. If the guesthouse mainly receives Mainland visitors, I may go with a teammate who can speak native Putonghua. If it is an hourly hotel, I will pair up with my teammate and rent a room as a couple," said Ice, who is also an auxiliary policewoman.

     Illegal guesthouse operators frequently change their modes of operation. There have been cases involving property agents and Ice has participated in a decoy operation that helped bring one of them to conviction for operating an illegal guesthouse.

     "I went to a property agency with my colleague, pretending to be a couple looking for temporary accommodation. The agent kept asking about our jobs and background and we had to respond quickly and calmly," she said.

     At last, the property agent rented a flat to these OLA officers without suspicion, and the OLA eventually collected sufficient evidence leading to the successful conviction of the property agent.

     The Chief Officer (Licensing Authority), Mr Winston Leung, said, "Should any property agent be convicted, the OLA will pass the conviction records to the Estate Agents Authority for disciplinary actions. Moreover, we shall pass information on the convicted cases to relevant government departments and organisations for follow-up actions. They include the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance, the Rating and Valuation Department, the Inland Revenue Department, mortgage banks or monetary institutions, property owners, owners' corporations and management offices of the buildings.

     "Upon the conviction of the property agent in May this year in the above case, we informed the Estate Agents Authority to take follow-up action."

     In recent years, quite a number of illegal guesthouse operators have touted for business in the cyber world and the OLA is also persevering in searching for these websites to prepare for enforcement actions. The Senior Station Officer, Mr Albert Tung, who has been working in the OLA for nearly five years, said, "Some of my colleagues are tasked with browsing guesthouse websites and verifying their licence status one by one. We will then trace their contact methods and mount decoy operations."
     Collection of evidence can be challenging as these websites may not list out the contact information in detail and transactions are usually made through bank transfers. Mr Tung said, "It is a criminal offence to operate or manage an unlicensed guesthouse. The convicted person will have a criminal record and is liable to imprisonment. In view of this, we attend to every single detail in collecting evidence so as to meet the standards required by the Evidence Ordinance."

     He added, "As the saying goes, the virtual world has no limit. You may find 100 guesthouse websites today and 100 more may pop up tomorrow. To ensure the safety of tourists and the public, we are determined to bring the illegal operators to justice if they operate unlicensed guesthouses in the real world."

     In fact, the OLA successfully brought two culprits to justice earlier this month for managing an illegal guesthouse after online booking and a decoy operation.

     From January to November in 2012, the OLA has conducted more than 5,000 inspections on suspected unlicensed guesthouses and has taken out 107 prosecutions. Up till now, there have been 95 successful convictions for contravening the Hotel and Guesthouse Accommodation Ordinance, and the sentence can be as long as imprisonment for two months.

     With Christmas and New Year round the corner, Mr Leung appealed to tourists to patronise licensed guesthouses that display licensed guesthouse logos to ensure a safe stay. He stressed, "The OLA will continue law enforcement work during the long holidays. Apart from carrying out intensified blitz inspections, it will also conduct large-scale inter-departmental joint operations with other government departments at tourist accommodation hotspots round the clock. We have already recruited a number of people with law enforcement experience to assist in the operations and shall not tolerate any unlicensed guesthouses."

     Furthermore, the OLA has already stepped up disseminating related messages on MTR lines, television and radio. To remind tourists to patronise licensed accommodation, posters and banners are displayed at major immigration control points and in districts with more suspected unlicensed guesthouses. Also, the OLA works closely with the Tourism Commission and the Hong Kong Tourism Board to urge tourists to patronise licensed hotels and guesthouses as well as to convey related messages to the Mainland tourism authorities. Tourists may also visit the OLA's website ( to view a list of licensed hotels and guesthouses in different districts and get relevant information from the Consumer Council's "Shop Smart" website.

Ends/Friday, December 14, 2012
Issued at HKT 16:04


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