At first glance, middle-aged Seoul housewife Jennifer Chung hardly looks like a bounty hunter tracking down lawbreakers, 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 owners of beauty salons.
“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,” 54-year-old Chung said.
“These are all against the law … I need evidence to report them to the authorities,” she said, 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 (US$1,700) a month.
Chung is far from alone. Many South Koreans, especially middle-aged women, have joined a growing number of “paparazzi” 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 full-time job,” said Moon Seung-ok, founder of Mismiz, a paparazzi school in Seoul.
The number of students spikes during economic slowdowns when housewives seek ways to supplement family incomes, he said.
Moon himself is a longtime paparazzi focusing on everything from speeding drivers to drug dealers. He said 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 told four nervous-looking students — all housewives in their 40s or 50s — during a class this month.
But there’s no need at all to feel guilty, he told them repeatedly.
“These are criminals, making pots of money by breaking laws. They deserve punishment!” Moon said, describing the job 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 late-night classes, breaking state rules aimed at curbing spending on private education and pressure on kids.
“Cram schools are everywhere, and housewives can easily act like ordinary parents asking for quotes for tuition,” Moon said.
The education ministry said it had paid 3.4 billion won in rewards since the system was adopted in July 2009, with one person alone raking in nearly 300 million won 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.