By Kim Tae-jong
In a small office in Gangnam, southern Seoul, were about a dozen of people attending a lecture. They were learning how to choose a target and then to secretly take pictures to collect evidence.
The students in this class are not secret agents or private detectives but regular people who want to catch illegal or unfair activities on camera to receive financial rewards from the government.
Called by the Konglish misuse of the term ``paparazzi'' here, professional reward hunters earn a living by uncovering law violations and reporting them to the authorities. There are hundreds of private institutes that run special courses to train people who seek to make substantial earnings simply by becoming reward hunters.
The government has introduced the civic monitoring program to effectively supervise and regulate infractions because government officials are unable to watch every sector.
Currently, there are 971 areas people can monitor, including traffic violations, breaking the Election Law, trash management, tax waivers, prostitution and dropping cigarette butts.
Some of the most promising include spying on hagwons, or Korean private learning institutes. When reporting their illegalities such as overcharging students and classes outside the permissible times, people can reap rewards of up to 5 million won.
According to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, since the illicit hagwon reporting program was introduced over two years ago, about 3.4 billion won has been awarded to informants.
For reports on retailers, restaurant owners and anyone involved in beef distribution who wrongly identify the country of origin, informants can be rewarded with between 50,000 and 2 million won.
But the scheme has an unintended side effect, namely encouraging too many people to do such jobs “professionally” and developing it into a career.
For around 250,000 won, people can take a special training course.
According to the Fair Trade Commission (FTC), the number of complaints about “paparazzi institutes” has been increasing with 46 cases reported in 2011, up from 11 in 2010.
But despite the growing number of people teeming into the academies hoping to make big bucks, the FTC said it does not know exactly how many such institutes are now in business as their establishment and operation are not subject to any law.
“They are luring people with exaggerated advertisements, saying that they can easily earn rewards of up to 100 million won,” said an FTC official.
They also force people to buy devices such as cameras and recorders that are three or four times more expensive than their original price tag and often refuse refunds, he said.
To tackle the problem involving such academies, the FTC Monday issued a warning and advised people about the misconceptions.
“There are only a few people who make large amounts of money by reporting infractions to the authorities,” the FTC official said. “People should not be deceived by their advertisements.”
거액의 포상금을 받을 수 있다며 수강생을 끌어들이는 이른바 “파파라치” 양성 학원이 크게 늘면서 이에 따른 부작용도 큰 것으로 나타나고 있다.
공정거래위원회는 16일 이른바 파파라치 양성 학원의 포상금 수입 과장 광고, 고가 카메라 구매 권유, 환불 거절 등으로 인한 소비자 피해가 증가하고 있다며 “소비자 피해주의보”를 발령했다.
공정위에 따르면 파파라치 양성학원은 서울 강남 등지에서 오피스텔을 사무실로 개조해 소수 인원을 대상으로 25만원 정도의 수업료를 받고 2~3일 정도의 이론·실습 교육을 한다고 한다.
하지만 이들 학원은 수강생 모집을 위해 가장 많이 수령한 포상금액을 속여 광고에 이용하기도 하고, 실습을 위해 필요하다며 고가의 카메라를 시중 판매가격보다 세네 배 이상 비싼 가격으로 사도록 한 후 반품을 요구하면 이를 거부하는 등의 불공정 행위가 빈번했다.
공정위 산하 소비자상담센터에 접수된 파파라치 양성 학원 교습 관련 건수는 2010년 11건에서 지난해 46건으로 급증했다. 올해는 1분기에만 11건이 접수됐다.