Part five of the Zenith Travel scam series of articles. — John.
By John Power and Kim Young-won
Expat fraud victims still waiting for resolution, eight months after police were first notified of rogue travel agent
For the victims of rogue travel agent Wan-goo “Wystan” Kang, the road to justice has been long and fraught with frustration.
Scammed out of a combined 150 million won ($128,000), some 65 foreign residents here have been waiting to see the outcome of the case since August, when police say they were first alerted to Kang.
In that time, many have left the country and Kang was allowed to continue working for six months.
“An apology does not suffice for what he has done,” said Irishman Kieran Curran, who along with his partner is owed 2.4 million won after they were left stranded in Prague.
“He repeatedly took advantage of people. When caught he was allowed to continue without punishment.”
Operating under the banner of Zenith Travel, and targeting foreign customers with adverts in The Korea Herald, Korea Times and other media, Kang’s modus operandi rarely deviated.
Kang would accept payment and send his customers a flight itinerary, only to cancel the airline booking without warning, pocketing the refund. In some cases, it is likely no booking was ever made.
Customers would then receive an e-mail from Kang claiming the booking had accidently been cancelled, and to wait for a refund, which in most cases never came.
Less fortunate victims were told they had no booking at the check-in desk of a foreign airport, between legs of a long-haul flight or on their way back to Seoul.
Isolated, relatively minor online complaints about Zenith Travel, which had a long history of satisfied customers, date back to at least 2008.
It would later emerge from the Korea Tourism Organization that Zenith Travel had never been legally entitled to serve foreign customers, despite its relatively sound reputation, as it lacked the necessary license.
It wasn’t until last July that serious accusations began to reach a critical mass, first on expat forum Dave’s ESL Cafe. In mid-September, they were picked up by The Three Wise Monkeys, an online media site for expats, and reported on shortly thereafter by The Korea Herald.
By this point, Kang had been reported to the police in Seocho, southern Seoul. Police officials told The Korea Herald they first received complaints about Kang in early August ― Aug. 5, according to one of the victims.
From this point, it would be almost nine weeks before Kang was arrested in the second week of October. During this time Kang would continue to take money from unsuspecting customers.
Action from the local government was similarly slow-moving, with Seocho District Office not revoking Kang’s business license until Oct. 6.
An unwillingness to cooperate with media was also notable. A district office spokesman refused to provide The Korea Herald with a press release on the initial arrest, claiming he could not be certain he was speaking to a journalist ― despite the release being freely available on the office’s website.
In the statement, the district office claimed to be aware of 25 victims, a number that would swell enormously in the subsequent weeks.
In mid-October, the International Crime Investigation Department at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, which had taken over the case in September, told The Korea Herald the case would be handed over to the prosecution by the end of the month.
For Kang’s victims, it seemed like justice was in sight.
However, Kang’s run of fraud was far from over. Shortly after his arrest, a Seoul judge refused a warrant to detain Kang, deeming him not to be a flight risk.
Then, on Jan. 5, The Korea Herald revealed the scam’s next incarnation: Kang, using the name “Joseph Kim,” had started another fraudulent business, Travel Expert, and continued to con tourists.
In the subsequent investigation by the authorities it transpired that Kang had set up his new business in Songpa, Seoul, days after his release from custody. He had legally registered it several weeks later with the local district office.
When contacted, Songpa District Office said that it had no knowledge of Kang’s activities when it granted his second business’ license in his stepdaughter’s name on Nov. 24.
Strikingly, Kang would not be indicted for his crimes until Feb. 16, almost six weeks after the revelations about Travel Expert ― and more than six months after the initial police complaints about Zenith Travel.
Songpa District Office said it had received complaints about Travel Expert, but first heard of Kang when it was contacted by Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office after his indictment.
Songpa said the requirements to register a business include capital of 60 million won, and paperwork relating to the owner and the business’ accounts.
It confirmed there is no prohibition on registering a business in a name besides one’s own, and that it has no way of determining whether an applicant is under criminal investigation. It can, however, check whether an applicant has been barred from running a business. As the district office was unaware of the true operator, this power was of no use in detecting Kang.
Kang has admitted to defrauding his customers and is due to be sentenced June 5. He denies a further charge of embezzling 60 million won in travel certificates from another travel agency. Prosecutors are seeking four years in prison, while the defense is asking the court to take into account Kang’s difficult financial circumstances and acknowledgment of wrongdoing.
With some conclusion in sight, victims that spoke to The Korea Herald were uniform in their dissatisfaction with the handling of the case.
“Where is the money?” asked Curran.
“Surely there has to be a money trail. Why weren’t his bank accounts searched and audited? Are there no assets at all in his family? Does he have a car, house, TV, computer?
“It’s easy for him to move the cash, take a small or no sentence and then be able to use his ill-gotten gains when he is free again. It certainly makes you feel like a second-class citizen when someone can repeatedly scam people with impunity from the law.”
Despite a group of some 20 victims winning a civil case for damages, it may prove impossible for them to recoup their losses. The court has accepted that Kang has no assets to pay back his victims.
A prosecutor at Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office familiar with the case refused to comment on whether prosecutors were confident Kang had no assets and how this was determined.
He also refused to comment on when the prosecution first became aware of Travel Expert.
Another victim who wished to remain anonymous said he didn’t care about the money, but simply wants to see Kang receive due punishment. He, too, has been aghast with the response of the authorities, saying his initial complaint to police at Gangdong Station in southern Seoul was met with indifference.
“The first time I went to the police station … they told me to deal with it face-to-face. They just turned their backs on me at the police station; they wouldn’t even take a police report,” he said.
He also complained that repeated e-mails to the Korea Times to remove its advert for Zenith Travel went unheeded.
A lack of feedback on the case from the authorities is another complaint. Most of the complainants have received their only updates on proceedings from Jo Tae-jin, a lawyer from Korea Legal Aid Corporation working on a pro bono basis.
“They took the complainant from us and told us that Korean system takes longer time and you need to wait … So far officially no police or any judicial guy from the government has contacted or updated us. It’s through the Facebook where lawyer Jo Tae-jin gave us updates,” said Ashok Dash, an Indian living here who was scammed out of more than 1.5 million won.
Kang’s fate will be determined on his day in court in June. But disillusionment with the legal system reigns among his spurned customers.
“It would not surprise me one iota that whenever he is free again the scamming will start again,” said Curran.
“Why wouldn’t he? He has literally nothing to lose. I’m not so sure the reaction would be the same if it was me scamming 200 million won from a large group of Koreans.”