[The Korea Herald] Scam travel agent given 21/2 years

The final part of the Zenith Travel scam series of articles. — John. 

By John Power

A travel agent who scammed some 65 foreign customers out of more than 170 million won ($147,000) was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison at Seoul Eastern District Court on Tuesday.

Kang Wan-koo, who also goes by “Wystan,” was also fined an undisclosed amount of several million won.

Kang took millions of won from customers for non-existent flights through his company Zenith Travel, often claiming the bookings had been accidentally cancelled. Many of his victims only discovered they had no booking when they arrived at the airport to take their flight. Kang also embezzled some 60 million won in travel certificates allocated to him by an unnamed travel agency.

Kang was first arrested last October, almost nine weeks after the initial police complaint, but was released shortly after. He then continued his scam with a new company, Travel Expert, under the alias Joseph Kim. Kang was arrested again and indicted in mid-February, five weeks after The Korea Herald reported on Travel Expert.

The presiding judge, surnamed Lee, said that while Kang had no previous criminal record, his crimes were extremely serious. Lee noted that Kang had ruined a wedding ceremony, family gathering and honeymoon, causing great distress to his victims.

He added that he did not believe Kang regretted his crimes, despite him apologizing in court. The prosecution had requested a four-year prison sentence. Kang has seven days to appeal.

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[The Korea Herald] Zenith scam case one of frustration and failure

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.”

[The Korea Herald] Rogue travel agent indicted for fraud

Part four of the Zenith Travel scam series of articles. — John.

By John Power and Robert Lee

A Seoul travel agent has been indicted on charges of fraud and embezzlement for scamming at least 60 customers out of more than 170 million won ($150,000), Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office said Thursday.

Initially operating as Zenith Travel, the man, Wystan Kang, canceled and pocketed the money for dozens of mostly foreign customers’ flights, often without notice.

Kang also embezzled some 60 million won in travel certificates allocated to him by an unnamed travel agency, according to prosecutors.

According to prosecutors, Kang began targeting customers in January 2011. The list of victims includes Korea residents from the U.S., U.K., France, Canada, Ireland, Israel, India, Uganda, Pakistan and South Africa. Kang, who is currently being detained, is expected to undergo a jury trial within the month.

Seocho Police Station was first made aware of Zenith Travel in early August, but Kang was not arrested until mid-October. A Seoul court, however, denied prosecutors’ request for his detention, deeming him not to be a flight risk.

On Oct. 25, just days after his release, Kang set up a new company, Travel Expert, through which he continued his scam under the alias “Joseph Kim,” according to prosecutors.

The Korea Herald revealed the operations of Travel Expert in January, five months after Kang was first reported to the police and three months after he had his business license for Zenith Travel revoked by Seocho District Office on Oct. 6. Kang had registered Travel Expert with Songpa District Office under someone else’s name on Nov. 24.

[The Korea Herald] Rogue travel agent starts new business under fake name

Part three of the Zenith Travel scam series of articles. — John.

By John Power

A travel agent who had his business registration revoked and was later arrested for scamming customers out of tens of millions of won is continuing to operate under a false name and new company.

Wan-koo “Wystan” Kang, of now-defunct Zenith Travel, currently operates Travel Expert under the alias “Joseph Kim,” advertising primarily to foreign customers.

Kang registered the business with Songpa District Office in Seoul under someone else’s name on Nov. 24, some seven weeks after he was arrested for not providing refunds on dozens of cancelled flights. But a call to Korea Tourism Organization’s Tourism Complaint Center confirmed that Travel Expert does not have the legally required business license to serve foreign customers.

“How can you know if this company is connected with Mr. Kang? We’ll never know … that’s kind of difficult for us (to find out),” said a staffer at the center.

She also confirmed that the person named on the business registration would be responsible for any problems with the company and that she could not locate its insurance information.

Kang quoted prices for flights to a number of destinations in China and took calls from other customers at his new Seoul office in Munjeong-dong when visited by The Korea Herald on Tuesday. A previous victim of Zenith who had met Kang later arranged to meet “Joseph Kim” and confirmed his actual identity. The Korea Herald first learned of Travel Expert after several of Zenith Travel’s victims received e-mail advertisements from the company.

During a call to Travel Expert’s office, a person answering to Joseph Kim denied he was Kang and claimed to have never heard of Zenith Travel.

“What are talking about, a different company? We are marketing to … the Korean market,” he said.

He further claimed his company has been in business for about three years and is based in Yongin City, Gyeonggi Province.

The Korea Herald has also learned that at least three more people did business with Kang under the banner of Zenith Travel in late November and mid-December, some two months after his arrest and business suspension. Each of those customers is still owed money by Kang.

Seocho District Office revoked Kang’s business license on Oct. 6 last year after it emerged that Kang owed more than 61 million won to some 25 people. The number of people claiming to have been scammed since then has swollen to more than 50, several of whom are owed more than 10 million won.

The Korea Herald reported in September that Kang had on numerous occasions canceled foreign customers’ flights shortly before departure, often without notice, and failed to provide refunds. Seocho Police were first made aware of Zenith Travel in early August, but Kang was not arrested until October, after the case had been transferred to the International Crime Investigation Department at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.

The police officer in charge of the case, who requested anonymity, said it had been handed over to the prosecution and he was unaware of its current status.

A prosecutor familiar with the case who did not wish to be named said the investigation was ongoing at the East Branch of Seoul District Prosecutors’ Office. He said he could not elaborate on any other details of the case.

A lawyer representing a number of Kang’s victims in a civil suit earlier told The Korea Herald that a judge had ruled not to detain Kang after his arrest as he was not deemed to be a flight risk.

A group of Zenith Travel’s victims are currently in the process of suing Kang for their money back.

[The Korea Herald] Arrested travel agent accepted bookings after ban

Part two of the Zenith Travel scam series of articles. — John. 

By John Power

A travel agent banned from operating for owing customers more than 61 million won was still accepting bookings as recently as Monday, more than three months [NOTE: This time frame, as originally reported was incorrect. It was in fact more than two months] after police were alerted to the case. Wystan Kang, the owner of Zenith Travel, has since been arrested according to news reports on Thursday.

Zenith Travel, which caters to foreigners in Korea, was investigated by the International Crime Investigation Department at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency and on Oct. 6 had its business registration revoked by Seocho District Office for failing to refund canceled flights.

Kang quoted ticket prices to The Korea Herald through the company’s email address on Monday, four days after the removal of business registration, and almost a month after an initial suspension of business imposed by the district office.

Under an assumed name, The Korea Herald was offered flights to Cebu in the Philippines for 639,000 won, to be transferred to Kang’s KEB bank. One victim also told The Korea Herald that Kang used his credit card details to purchase another customer’s flights.

SMPA has declined to comment on the case. Seocho Police Station was first made aware of Zenith Travel in early August, before the case was transferred to the International Crime Investigation Department last month. A number of the victims have said they intend to file a civil case against Kang.

At the end of September, The Korea Herald reported that Kang had on numerous occasions cancelled mostly foreign customers’ flights shortly before departure, often without notice, and failed to provide refunds. Kang claimed he was in financial difficulty and would refund his customers.

According to a spokeswoman at Korea Tourism Organization, Kang’s company had not been legally permitted to serve foreign customers in the first place, and did not have business travel insurance.

Zenith Travel’s website and office have since been shut down, but its company email, zenithtour@hotmail.com, was in use as of Monday.

In a press release Thursday, Seocho District Office said it was aware of 25 victims in total, including a Washington state representative’s son who booked a flight for his honeymoon and two Koreans, who are owed more than 61 million won among them. A Seocho spokesperson had refused to provide The Korea Herald with the press release Thursday, claiming he could not be sure he was speaking to a journalist, despite the statement being freely available on the district office’s website.

[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.