Most people are familiar with common scams when travelling, often to do with theft or a loss of property etc., and having travelled solo plenty times before, I’ve become rather mistrusting of strangers.
One thing I didn’t quite see coming though, was religious cults and teahouses.
It’s a “scam” that’s been going on in Korea for years. If you look it up, there’s a shocking number of people coming forward and sharing their experiences to various degrees on forums (see also) and on video documentaries (this Korean prank group on YouTube do many exposés on these scammers and you can find one such video here).
Prior to my Korea trip, I hadn’t heard anything about this scam.
Here’s my experience with it.
I was approached thrice, twice on a day trip to Suwon and the last at Hongdae in Seoul.
The first time it happened, I’d just got off the bus to Suwon Hwaseong Fortress when a man in his thirties with a clipboard came over speaking to me in Korean. Upon realising I wasn’t reacting the way he expected, he started asking where I was from, and continued listing a bunch of countries.
As this was happening, another lady also with a clipboard, this time in her twenties, came up to me asking where I was from.
I’m not entirely sure if they were together or not, but the way they behaved made it seem like they were not.
At this point, I was in a rush as it was already 3pm and I had a fair bit I wanted to see in Suwon, and as I continued walking on I kept repeating “no”.
The man started asking if I knew much about Korean traditional culture as I shuffled along without replying.
The man gave up first, then the lady stopped pestering me but not without a visibly sad look on her face, like she was genuinely disappointed that I wasn’t engaging.
The second time it happened, I was leaving Suwon and walking underground from the shopping mall to the train platforms, when I was stopped by a college-aged university student who was on his own.
He, too, assumed I was Korean and started speaking to me, before realising I wasn’t and switched to English.
Because I wasn’t in a rush, and honestly slightly intrigued by what they wanted, I stayed to chat. I remained cautious despite his warm and sincere demeanour.
It started off with very innocent talk, really, asking what I was doing in Korea and how long I was here for.
As it continued, he had his golden question at the ready, “do you know much about Korean traditional culture? I’d like to introduce something to you.”
He reached for his phone, and wanted to show me something.
At this point, I clocked out, and told him I had a train to catch, and similar to how the lady reacted earlier that day, he looked disappointed and sad that I had to leave, almost like the way you’d expect someone watching their best friend leave the country after spending a day together, which I felt odd about but not enough to raise any red flags.
The thing about scams in my experience is that it’s usually far more straightforward, ie. someone distracts you while you get pickpocketed, but this seemed a little more out of the ordinary.
A couple days passed, and on one of my last days in Seoul, I was doing a spot of shopping in Hongdae, and a college-aged couple, one male and the other female, walked past me on the street and simultaneously asked me where Style Nanda was in Korean.
“Isn’t that in Myeongdong?” I went. (There’s one in Hongdae, which I didn’t know at the time.)
“No there’s one here too,” the girl replied.
“You’re not Korean? Where are you from?” came when she realised I replied in English and the whole cycle of conversation began again.
The girl was pretty much leading the conversation, all chirpy and enthusiastic. The guy would nod in agreement or add in little quips here and there throughout the conversation, but never took over. He too was very smiley and warm, though notably a little shy.
They made it clear to me that they were just like me, saying they were out of towners visiting Seoul, and therefore weren’t clear with directions in the city, using that as the reason as to why they approached me.
They took a lot of interest in the fact that I was travelling alone and not with friends, even though I told them I had friends in Korea, and kept asking me about it, along with what I was studying in university.
Once again, I was cautious, but this couple did raise a couple red flags that made me uncomfortable.
“When do you leave Korea?”
“What time do you leave?”
“No but what time do you leave?”
“…11pm,” I lied.
Just as it happened, I bumped into an old friend from school and said hey. He left after scanning the situation. Something about it was a little off, but everything about this situation felt odd.
I felt my phone vibrate a couple of times in my hand, but didn’t stop to read my notifications.
“That was your friend? How do you know each other? Why are you not travelling together?”
They then proceeded to talk about Korean traditional culture, and invited me to a teahouse.
“Are you busy?”
Just as that happened, my friend from earlier was calling me on WhatsApp, and I showed them my phone screen, saying, “yeah I’m busy, I have to take this call. Sorry, annyeong.”
As I high tailed it out of there, I saw them with the same disappointed look all the others showed, and then learned what this entire scam was about.
I was a little freaked (mostly the religious cult thing), but thanked my friend for saving me in that moment.
I started looking it up online, and to my shock found so many recounts of the exact same story.
Here’s how it mostly goes from what I read.
A young, friendly college-aged couple comes up to you asking where some place is. It happens very often in Hongdae, and is odd because Koreans generally do not talk to strangers in the street. Some forum discussions added that it was even odder for them to be asking visibly foreign people on the street something about Seoul or Korea. But from my experience, they all thought I was Korean, so this clearly isn’t only aimed at tourists. I do think travelling on my own made me an easier target though.
From what I understand, they take you to a teahouse on the premise of introducing their culture to you (if you’re a traveller passing through), from where they’ll feed you tea and food and maybe dress you in a hanbok and extort money from you in the form of donations.
Reading more into this, I read accounts of people being followed when they turned them down initially, which probably spooked me the most, and I spent the rest of the entire day looking over my shoulder. Though considering how productive I am when I travel and how much distance I can cover in a day, unless they were willing to take a joyride through the city and be a tourist for a day, I don’t think they would’ve hung around for long.
I would never willingly follow a stranger anywhere given how distrusting I am of strangers, but I can see how this move works; wide-eyed eager travellers thinking they ran into nice locals and they’ll get a great experience and good story out of it. It certainly doesn’t help that they are often young and chatty, their “sincerity” quite easily winning over many.
But these things do exist.
Also, I should add that since they didn’t approach me because they thought I was a foreigner, they do go after Koreans as well and most locals know of these swindlers. However, most involve paper burning ceremonies and paying for ancestor worship rituals, having to rid their body of demons etc. They just change their words and tactics when speaking to foreigners.
After speaking with many other travellers too, I do think travelling solo made me more approachable to them, so here’s a heads up if you’re planning to travel to Seoul or South Korea (especially) on your own!