Whistle-blowing a lucrative side income for South Korean housewives.
AT first glance, middle-aged housewife Jennifer Chung hardly looks like a bounty hunter tracking down lawbreakers in Seoul.
But every morning, after sending her two sons and husband off to school and work, she sets out in search of local scofflaws – such as cram school teachers, restaurateurs or beauty salon owners. “Some of them charge parents more than state-set tuition limits, don’t disclose on the menu the origin of food they serve, or give skincare treatments which only doctors are allowed to perform,” says Chung, 54.
“These are all against the law... I need evidence to report them to the authorities,” she says, sporting a high-definition camcorder hidden in her purse with the lens peeking through a tiny hole.
On a typical undercover mission, Chung poses as a regular customer, videotapes conversations or scenes at offending establishments, and sends the videos to authorities.
Each time, she collects cash rewards from various departments which add up to more than two million won (RM5,400) a month.
Chung is far from alone. Many South Koreans, especially middle-aged women, have joined a growing number of snoopers. They cash in by videotaping minor lawbreaking by fellow citizens, instead of the lives of the rich and famous.
With the government continually expanding such rewards, schools for snoopers are thriving. They teach pupils how to stalk their prey and get them on film, and even how to play the innocent to dodge suspicion.
“This has become a pretty lucrative industry now ... some people are doing this as a fulltime job,” says Moon Seung-Ok, founder of Mismiz, a snoop school in Seoul.
The number of students spikes during economic slowdowns when housewives seek ways to supplement family incomes, he says.
Moon himself is a long-time snooper focusing on everything from speeding drivers to drug dealers. He says snoopers help officials and the police, who are too understaffed and overworked to enforce regulations.
“Some people accuse us of having no conscience or being a rat, making money by taking advantage of others’ weakness,” he tells four nervous-looking students – all housewives in their 40s or 50s – during a class. But there’s no need at all to feel guilty, he tells them repeatedly.
“These are criminals, making pots of money by breaking laws. They deserve punishment!” Moon says, describing the job of snoopers as “kind of a patriotic duty ... with benefits.”
A textbook he wrote lists scores of violations linked to rewards, ranging from dropping cigarette butts or dumping trash in the wrong bag to prostitution and insurance fraud.
The most common targets in the education-obsessed nation are cram school owners who overcharge parents or run latenight classes, breaking state rules aimed at curbing spending on private education and pressure on kids.
“It’s most popular because cram schools are everywhere, and housewives can easily act like ordinary parents asking for quotes for tuition,” says Moon.
The education ministry says it has paid 3.4 billion won (RM9.2mil) in rewards since the system was adopted in July 2009, with one person alone raking in nearly 300 million won (RM813,000) by making more than 920 reports.
A cat-and-mouse game has developed between snoopers and their increasingly wary prey. Chung often sneaks into a cram school in the evening and hides in a toilet for hours, until teachers have locked the door from inside to try to keep out the snoopers.
“Janitors often catch me in the toilet. I tell them I had sudden diarrhoea and urgently needed to go to the bathroom,” Chung says.
Critics say snoopers are squeezing mom-and-pop businesses trying to survive in tough times. Cho Young-Hwan, spokesman for South Korea’s cram school association, calls them “merciless predators” who force many small cram schools to shut down.
Many schools are pressured to run late-night classes because parents demand that their kids study until late despite the government ban, he says.
“These professional bounty hunters are turning a place of children’s education into a playground for their profiteering.”
Oh Chang-Soo, a law professor at Jeju National University, calls the situation worrying. He says the rewards have become “a cash cow for bounty hunters” and does not encourage a healthy civic spirit or genuine sense of justice.
“These snoopers set up a trap and eagerly wait until someone violates a rule. A practice like this will only fan mistrust among members of society,” Oh says. – AFP