[The Korea Herald] Zenith Travel probed by police for not paying refunds

This is the first of six articles I wrote about a travel agent who scammed mostly foreign victims out of some 150 million won. The case was illuminating for the length of time it took the authorities to stop the culprit, Kang Wan-goo. After his arrest, more than two months after police were first alerted, he was allowed free.  He then continued his scam under a fake alias, a development revealed through my reporting (it is unclear if the authorities were aware). Parts two, three, four, five– an extensive overview of the case — and six can be read here, here, here, here and here — John. By John Power A local travel agent that caters to foreigners is under police investigation after failing to refund millions of won in cancelled flights ― and is still operating despite having its business suspended by a local government office. A spokeswoman at Korea Travel Organization’s Tourist Complaint Center said Thursday that she’d been told in writing by Seocho District Office that Seoul-based Zenith Travel had ceased business. Seocho District Office told The Korea Herald that it had suspended the travel agent’s business since Sept. 15 and was in the process of canceling its business registration after a consultation period. When contacted by phone Thursday, however, an employee at Zenith Travel claimed that the Gangnam agent’s owner, Wystan Kang was out of the office but asked for an email address to provide flight details. According to the spokesman at the KTO’s TCC and several of the customers who came forward, the person taking calls at Zenith Travel has claimed not to be working for the company. Shortly after a call from The Korea Herald using an assumed name, Kang sent details of flights from Incheon to Paris, costing 878,000 won, and continued correspondence through Monday. In the emails, Kang claimed the flights had been reserved and asked for payment by Monday. Disappointed customer Heather Ryan told The Korea Herald that she was still waiting for a refund of almost 1.5 million won ($1,260) after the flight she booked through Zenith Travel was canceled in the first week of September. She had received an email from Zenith Travel the day before her ticket home to Canada claiming it had been accidentally cancelled and a full refund was on its way. More than three weeks later, Ryan said she has yet to be refunded and all calls and emails to Kang have gone unanswered. “Immediately, I responded to the email and called the contact number, without answer. Throughout the day, repeated emails were sent and calls were made, only to be told he was not in the office. Eventually, I was given his mobile phone number but those calls went unanswered,” Ryan said. She was forced to spend over 2 million won for another flight so she could bring home her mother from hospital in Canada. Another angry customer, Courtney Zach, is owed more than 1.2 million won by Kang, after her flight to Hawaii was cancelled without warning days before departure. “After I bought the tickets I asked could I change the dates … and they just kept ignoring my emails. Finally they replied and said you should call the airline. The (airline) woman said, ‘your ticket was booked but they cancelled it,’” she said. Zach said that she rang Zenith Travel numerous times only to be told by an employee that Kang was unavailable. Another foreigner who works at a university in Seoul and did not wish to be named is owed about 600,000 won more than three months after being assured of a refund. In total, The Korea Herald has spoken to five other foreign customers owed more than 16 million won between them, and a sixth who said he was only refunded after countless phone calls and the threat of police action. Two others came forward with other complaints, including one woman who said she was almost left stranded in Nepal until she begged Kang to book the flight she’d paid for. In email correspondence to a number of the customers seen by The Korea Herald, Kang admitted to not having paid back their money. In the emails, some of which were copied and pasted, Kang denied any intention to cheat his customers and insisted he will refund the money, blaming financial troubles for the delay. Korea Tourism Organization’s TCC confirmed it has received complaints about Zenith Travel which were forwarded to Seocho District Office as the KTO has no legal authority to sanction a business. Kang has ignored all attempts by The Korea Herald to contact him about money he owes his customers. The spokeswoman at the KTO’s TCC said that Zenith Travel was not legally entitled to serve foreign customers in the first place and has not had travel business insurance since 2009. The International Crime Investigation department at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency is investigating the complaints. The case was being handled by Gangnam police station before being transferred recently. Gangnam police was first made aware of Zenith Travel in early August. SMPA has refused to comment on the current investigation. Hannah Stuart-Leach and Monica Suk contributed to this report.

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