Snoop squads

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By JUNG HA-WON

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

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