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13 Most Common Tourist Scams in South Korea

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Note: If you can't afford travel insurance, you can't afford to travel. World Nomads Travel Insurance, backed by Lonely Planet & National Geographic, is one we recommend. Check it out before your adventure.

 

Feather Pavilion

Feather Pavilion. Source: Giuseppe Milo / Flickr

 

Many visitors come to South Korea to enjoy one of the most vibrant countries in Asia.

South Korea is known for its mix of old and new which can be found in traditional buildings like inns and spas and in cutting edge cities like Seoul.

The country is also known for its amazing pop culture and you can enjoy shopping for the latest Korean fashions.

As if that wasn’t enough, this country has a wealth of delicious food such as bibimbap and fiery kimchi.

Although South Korea is known for being an extremely safe country, travelers should still stay vigilant as scams and petty crime do exist.

Read on to learn how to protect yourself here!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1. Cult ceremony scam

 

How it works:

This is Korea’s version of China’s tea house scam and you can encounter this at places which tourists frequent (e.g. Myeongdong, Hongdae, Gangnam, etc).

Variation one:

On the streets, you may be approached by an old lady in the company of her daughter (they usually approach in pairs).

This in itself should alert you for its not normal for Koreans to approach foreigners openly.

The old lady will then ask if you have had a relative who passed on recently, explaining that the soul of the departed was not in peace :O

To give the departed soul peace, she encourages you to come to a traditional Korean ceremony to make offerings.

What she doesn’t tell you however, is that offerings will require a compulsory donation equivalent to 1000 times your age in Korean won!!!

Variation two:

A more straightforward variation, this is where some girls approach you on the streets.

They then invite you to attend a ceremonial Korean event where you get to eat local fruits and wear traditional clothing.

Over there, they will ask you to make a compulsory donation to some foundation before you can get to eat or try any clothes!

 

What to do:

Decline and be on your way.

Some claim that these scammers are practising the Jeung San Do religion, which is widely believed to be a cult / pseudo religion.

If you want to learn more about the Korean culture, it would be better to engage a licensed and reputable tours and activities operator which you can find via:

  • TourRadar: all the best multi-day tours by established names like Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Trafalgar, etc can be found here with best price guarantee.
  • Klook: best day tours platform in Asia – excellent curation of tours, tickets and transport with best price guarantee.
  • Your hotel / hostel affiliated tour operators: reliable but generally not the best or cheapest.

 

2. Ginseng / amethyst / seaweed shopping tour

Ginseng shop

Ginseng shop. Source: Lota Hilton/ Flickr

 

How it works:

While ginseng and raisin extract are well-known Korean products, when you see such items included as part of your tour itinerary, be on your guard.

You are likely to find yourself trapped in some venue where you are coaxed into buying the products.

While there is nothing wrong with the products per se, they usually do not come with any price tags and so, you are probably going to be overcharged by a few times.

Further, you are going to be wasting a lot of time (e.g. product demonstrations) and will be subject to high pressure sales tactics at such places.

 

What to do:

If you really want ginseng or such items at fair prices, go to a Cheong-Kwan-Jang (ginseng company) which can be found on most Korean streets.

As for tour operators, only engage licensed, reputable ones which you can find via:

  • TourRadar: all the best multi-day tours by established names like Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Trafalgar, etc can be found here with best price guarantee.
  • Klook: best day tours platform in Asia – excellent curation of tours, tickets and transport with best price guarantee.
  • Your hotel / hostel affiliated tour operators: reliable but generally not the best or cheapest.

 

3. Fake monks

Jogyesa Temple

Jogyesa Temple

 

How it works:

Fake monks have infiltrated the world (e.g. US, Czech Republic, Malaysia) and it’s no surprise to find them here as well.

You can find them anywhere tourists frequent, such as the Jogyesa temple or Insa-dong in Seoul.

In return for blessings or supposed free “lucky charms” like amulets, these fakes will openly solicit for donations.

They could also show you a picture of a temple and a notebook of past donors’ names and donation amounts, before asking you to donate.

However, the fact is that genuine monks would never be on the streets to seek such donations.

 

What to do:

Ignore.

 

4. Tourist prices

Market stall in Korea

Market stall in Korea

 

How it works:

The overcharging of tourists used to be a big problem but has been slowly clamped down.

This means that you will be paying more for an item or service than it is worth simply (double or triple the price) because you are a foreigner.

In fact, in 2012, the Chosun IIbo (news organization) went on the ground to expose the overcharging scams at pojangmachas (covered street carts).

It was a nationwide story and spurred the government to take action by introducing tourist police in major cities which tourists frequent.

This scam can come in many forms:

  • You may be charged an inflated price when buying souvenirs or clothes (e.g. at Myeongdong, Namdaemun) which are unlabelled.
  • Can be asked to pay a higher rate to enter an attraction.
  • Or made to pay an inflated “service fee”.
  • It can even occur in a restaurant / bar / roadside stall where there are menus with clearly labeled prices.

 

What to do:

Try to familiarize yourself with some of the prices that you can expect to pay for things.

You can do some online research or check with your hotel / hostel staff.

If all these sound like too much of a hassle, you can also consider:

  • Using local connections: get a local to bring you around.
  • Fixed price shops: slightly higher prices than average, but you won’t be ripped off.
  • A shopping / food tour through Klook: best day tours platform in Asia – excellent curation of tours, tickets and transport with best price guarantee.
  • Multi-day tour through TourRadar: all the best multi-day tours by established names like Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Trafalgar, etc can be found here with best price guarantee.

 

5. Fake products

Namdaemun Market, Myeongdong

Namdaemun Market, Myeongdong

 

How it works:

One of the common scams found in South Korea is the sale of fake products.

For instance, a scammer will sell you an electronic item such as a branded mobile phone for an extremely cheap price, but once you have bought the item you will realize that it is fake and badly made.

Another example is that of fake cosmetics.

Just a few years ago, a store in Ewha Womans University was caught for selling fake cosmetics.

A red flag then was that they only allowed foreigners to buy these products.

 

What to do:

If you want to buy electronics (and other products) then it is better to do so from established and official retailers so that you will be sure that they are not fake.

 

6. Fake deals

Jongno

Jongno

 

How it works:

A seller will try to convince you that you are buying a one-of-a-kind item which has some historic or unique value.

Once you are interested in the item they will charge an unusually high price for it which they will say is justified due to the originality of the item.

This is almost certainly a scam however and it is highly unlikely that art work or antiques are genuinely unique items that can’t be bought anywhere else in South Korea.

 

What to do:

Be skeptical if someone tells you that an item is a one-of-a-kind artefact or antique.

If possible always try to buy souvenirs or gifts from a reputable shop rather than a market place or unlicensed business.

You can find these by doing some online research or checking with your hotel / hostel staff.

If all these sound like too much of a hassle, you can also consider:

  • Using local connections: get a local to bring you around.
  • A shopping tour through Klook: best day tours platform in Asia – excellent curation of tours, tickets and transport with best price guarantee.
  • Multi-day tour through TourRadar: all the best multi-day tours by established names like Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Trafalgar, etc can be found here with best price guarantee.

 

7. Pickpocketing

Lotte World Tower

Lotte World Tower. Source: Matt Wicks / flickr

 

How it works:

Crime is rare in South Korea but when it does occur it is usually in the form of pick pocketing.

This can take place in tourist areas such as Itaewon in Seoul or crowded transportation hubs like Cheongnyangni Train Station.

These thieves work in gangs, and will hang around to spot anyone carrying an expensive or neglected phone / jewelry / valuable / bag and where it is stored.

Once they mark a target, they will surround you and then work like this:

  • One keeps a lookout and blocks passer-bys from seeing the scene.
  • Another blocks, pushes or distracts you (e.g. ask you an innocent question / survey / drop something and ask you about it).
  • A third steals your valuable / slashes your bag and then passes it on.
  • The last hides the loot under a jacket / coat / newspaper and then escapes.

 

What to do:

Stay alert and watch out for suspicious characters, though that is easier said than done.

The best solution is still, to not make yourself look like a target. 

Further, make it impossible for thieves to steal from you with these methods:

  • Carry a photocopy of your passport instead of the actual one.
  • Carry small amounts of cash in a cheap spare wallet that you wouldn’t mind losing. Do not leave it in your back pocket.
  • Conceal small valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch, large valuables in a slash-resistant and lockable anti-theft bag.
  • Leave most valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment safe, secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) to cover loss of valuables.

 

8. Drink spiking

Night party in Korea

Night party in Korea. Source: Byoung Wook – Toughkid Kim / Flickr

 

How it works:

Drink spiking has become a rising problem in South Korea in recent years and takes place primarily in nightclubs and bars.

Scammers will add drugs or sedatives to drinks and then wait for you to either lose consciousness or lose the ability to think clearly.

They will then often offer to help you get back to your hotel and will take the opportunity to rob you of your valuables.

In fact, bar owners are in on the scam as well.

Just in 2017, three bar owners and five employees in Itaewon were caught for drugging foreign tourists and then swiping their cards for transactions worth over 25 million won.

Visitors should remain vigilant in the main nightlife areas in Seoul such as Gangnam, Hongdae, and Itaewon.

 

What to do:

Do not accept any drinks that you have not seen made in front of you, or to leave it unattended.

Canned or bottled drinks are recommended as it is more difficult for someone to put a sedative inside.

Also, do not flaunt your valuables. Leave them in your hotel or hostel safe / apartment which you can further secure with hotel safety tools.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Unlicensed taxis

Taxi in Korea

Taxi in Korea. Source: Custom_Cab / Flickr

 

How it works:

Unlicensed taxis often have a range of scams designed to trick foreigners into paying more for their journey.

Some of these include asking for a flat rate which is much higher than it would be in a metered taxi, or deliberately short-changing passengers who are unfamiliar with the local currency in South Korea.

You may encounter them at airports like Incheon Airports, at tourist attractions or at busy shopping districts.

 

What to do:

Do not take an unofficial taxi.

If you do take one, take a photo of the car plate and the driver’s license in case anything goes wrong.

Else, consider these other options:

  • Get a licensed cab – Ilban (grey / white / blue taxis) or Mobeom (deluxe / black taxis).
  • Private driver arranged through your hotel / hostel or from day tour platforms like Klook (best in Asia).
  • Book a rental car through Rentalcars, the world’s largest rental car aggregator platform.
  • Use a taxi booking app like KakaoTaxi and Uber.

 

2. Indirect taxi routes

Gangseo-Gu

Gangseo-Gu

 

How it works:

In order to bulk up the fare, some drivers may deliberately take you on a long route around the city which will add to your journey time and to the price on the meter.

Some may also drive into very crowded areas intentionally to extend the journey and keep the meter running.

 

What to do:

In the cab, be very clear when communicating the destination you are heading to. More prominent landmarks around your destination can be mentioned.

During the ride, check your phone’s GPS to make sure you are headed in the correct direction.

Sometimes, drivers do take detours to avoid traffic jams, but that should not detract from the correct general direction.

To tell if you have been taken for a ride, you can also estimate a fair price of any route by checking:

  • Use Naver Maps / online taxi fare estimators / online travel forums.
  • With your hotel / hostel
  • Taxi booking apps like KakaoTaxi and Uber.

If you need to seek recourse, remember to take a photo of the car plate number and of the driver’s license.

You can also call the hotline 120.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Snatch theft

 

How it works:

This can happen in rural areas or in places such as Garibong-dong in Seoul – the Chinatown section of the city.

Generally, there are two versions of snatch thefts – strike and run, or distract and grab, in many possible contexts:

  • Bikes / mopeds riding past, with a pillion rider doing the snatch.
  • Snatching from behind you, then running into a getaway car to escape.
  • At restaurants, stealing unattended bags / valuables on the chair or table.
  • Hotels airports, where distracted / tired tourists carry all their valuables out.
  • The beach where tourists are relaxed, or when they head to the water.
  • Nightclubs, where “prostitutes” pretend to proposition tourists by grabbing them but are really trying to steal your valuables.
  • Seats beside a train’s doors where a thief gets out just before the doors close.
  • Stealing of bags on overnight trains / buses.
  • Valuables snatched through a car / bus window.
  • Thefts around ATMs.

 

What to do:

At crowded places, even seemingly safe places like at a restaurant or hotel:

While out walking / on transport:

  • Use a cross body anti-theft bag facing away from the road / windows of your vehicle.
  • Do not carry valuables in your hands when walking by the road or when beside a vehicle window / train door.
  • Avoid wearing obvious jewelry which can be easily ripped off.

Other protection measures:

  • Leave valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment safe secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) to cover loss of valuables.

 

2. Rental apartment scam

Please be extra careful when you make bookings from booking.com because some hotels don't even exist! Sebelum ini sy…

Posted by Xavier Aranggoi Maurice on Sunday, 14 October 2018

 

How it works:

Just in late 2018, a Malaysian man was tricked of over USD $1,000 after falling for this scam.

A couple of months prior to his visit, he was requested by the owner of the property to book / reserve the place by making a deposit payment.

Once the payment had been made (through Alipay), no confirmation came from the owner who even stopped responding to queries.

Later, he received a notification from booking.com informing him of the cancellation of the booking.

When he tried contacting the owner of the property, the person he dealt with claimed that he is no longer working with the property owner and so, is unable to help.

 

What to do:

First, only book via legitimate accommodation platforms such as:

  • Agoda: leader in Asia with the best selection and rates here generally.
  • Homestay: if you are up for gaining genuine insights of South Korea by staying with a local host!

Next, watch out for these red flags of a fraud listing:

  • Prices that are too good to be true.
  • Illogical descriptions because they copy and paste without any edits.
  • Dodgy sounding reviews.
  • Difference in photos provided and pictures seen with Google Street View.
  • Payment only by bank transfer off the booking platform (note: they will use names that include the original booking platform to make it seem like you are still dealing with the platform).
  • Or payment to a foreign bank account or via Western Union / MoneyGram (sure sign of a scam as transfers are irreversible).
  • Owner is overseas, insists on only using English in emails and emails are worded in poor English.
  • If the “owner” refuses to provide more details or to allow for a tour of the place.

Some due diligence methods you can use:

  • Search online reviews and Google the names of the owner.
  • Call the phone number provided on the listing.
  • Grill the “landlord” by asking specific questions, such as room dimensions or something unique as seen in the photos.
  • You can even pretend something exists in the online photos and test if the “landlord” can call your bluff.
  • Search if the property has another online presence or contact number and engage that to see if they are consistent.
  • Test the owner by requesting for a visit from a local friend – it doesn’t have to happen, you just want to test the owner’s receptiveness.
  • Finally, do not pay in full upfront and do not make payment off the platform.

 

3. Prostitution scam

Jeju Island

Jeju Island

 

How it works:

One report from the Jeju Island district police is of a scam involving money extortion from tourists seeking sex from teenage girls.

The scam is perpetuated by teen girls and boys working together.

Reportedly, the teen girls recruit their victims through a mobile chat app and lure them to a hotel room.

Once there, the victims are threatened that if they don’t pay up, they would be reported to the police for soliciting sex with under age girls.

 

What to do:

Do not engage in such activities.

 

D. KEY SAFETY ISSUES

This is not meant to be a fear mongering exercise, as most visits are trouble free as long as you exercise some common sense.

However, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Information below has been compiled from:

 

1. Violent crime, hazards, hotspots, terrorism, civil unrest

Map of safe and unsafe regions in South Korea

Map of safe and unsafe regions in South Korea. Source: smartraveller.gov.au

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Violent crime: South Korea is very safe and this is uncommon. Watch out more for petty crime in major cities (e.g. Seoul, Busan), shopping districts and crowded transportation hubs.
  • Hazards: n.a.
  • Hotspots: Demilitarized zone / border with North Korea.
  • Terrorism: no recent history, but should not be taken for granted.
  • Civil unrest: demonstrations are common and mostly peaceful.

 

What to do:

Stay alert around crowded areas and don’t look like an easy victim (e.g. looking like a tourist / flaunting valuables).

Monitor local media in case of any terrorist threats, and avoid participating in demonstrations.

Note that civil emergency exercises are held 8 times a year on the 15th of every month except January, February, July and December.

You can download the “Emergency Ready” app developed by the South Korean government for civil emergency advice.

 

2. Medical care

Samsung Medical Center

Samsung Medical Center. Source: apsoprs.org

 

How it works:

Medical care standards are high in South Korea, but communicating in English may be difficult.

Diseases to vaccinate against / watch out for include:

  • Insect borne diseases: dengue, chikungunya, Japanese encephalitis, Lyme disease, malaria (in the DMZ, rural areas in the north of Gyonggi and Gangwon), tick-borne encephalitis.
  • Food and water borne diseases: travellers’ diarrhoea, typhoid, hepatitis, schistosomiasis.
  • Animal borne diseases: avian influenza, rabies.
  • Human borne diseases: HIV, tuberculosis, hand foot and mouth disease March to May).
  • Air pollution: strong winds bring yellow dust from Mongolia and China (March to May).

 

What to do:

If you can’t afford travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads – our review), you can’t afford to travel, as:

  • Emergency health services can cost a bomb.
  • Insurance providers can make complex logistical arrangements to get you the best medical treatment fast.

Vaccinations to consider:                                                

  • All travellers: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, flu shot.
  • Most travellers: hepatitis A, typhoid.
  • Some travellers: hepatitis B, Japanese Encephalitis (for rural areas), malaria (March to December, rural areas in the North), rabies (for outdoor / adventure activites)

Prevent insect bites:

  • Protective clothing.
  • Insect repellents.
  • Insecticide treated bed / cot nets.
  • Plug-in insecticides.
  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass.

Food safety:

  • Practise safe hygiene such as washing hands with soap.
  • Only drink bottled water or water that has been boiled.
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, ice cubes, uncooked and undercooked food.

 

3. Natural disasters

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Rainy season: late June to August, can trigger flooding and landslides.
  • Typhoons: June to November.
  • Earthquakes: there is some earthquake activity but less than in neighboring regions like Japan.
  • Yellow dust pollution: March to May.

 

What to do:

Effective preparation and prevention involves staying at the “right” place, travelling at the “right” time and getting travel insurance (e.g. World Nomadsour review) that covers natural disasters.

Check the latest media reports, weather forecasts and sources such as:

Reacting to one:

  • Earthquakes: drop (to hands and knees), cover (head and neck with arms), hold on (to sturdy furniture); expect aftershocks.

 

4. Transport safety

 

How it works:

Road conditions are good but road fatalities are high relative to other developed countries (e.g. UK) due to these reasons:

  • Speeding, running red lights, not signaling
  • Aggressive bus drivers and weaving motorcyclists who sometimes drive on sidewalks.

Public transportation:

  • Extensive and efficient public transport system.
  • High speed rail (KTX) links Seoul and the major Southern cities (Busan, Gwangju, Mokpo).
  • Ferry services are available at major coastal cities. Safety standards have been raised since the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014.
  • However, cab drivers speak little English.

 

What to do:

Make sure your travel insurance (e.g. World Nomadsour review) covers travel accidents.

Driving:

  • Book a rental car via legitimate platforms (e.g. Rentalcars – world’s largest platform).
  • Check latest media reports and weather forecast.
  • Stay alert, wear seatbelts, keep doors locked and windows up

Public transportation:

  • Since 2018, you are legally required to wear a seatbelt while in a cab / express bus.
  • If you cannot speak Korean, have your destination written in Korean before boarding a cab.

 

E. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Police in South Korea.

Police in South Korea.

 

  • Fire, ambulance and emergency: 119
  • Police: 112
  • Ambulance service: 144
  • Medical emergency: 1339

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