Navigating Tourist Traps & Scams in Seoul

Over the past 10 to 20 years, Seoul has seen rapid development and with the influence of Korean Wave, it is estimated that tourism expenditures in the country have more than tripled since a decade ago. As the average expenditure per person hits over $1,000 USD, big and small companies are all trying to get a bigger piece of the pie, some through legitimate means and others, unscrupulous ways.

At stake? Paying more than you should be during your holiday. And this, or making a purchase due to misleading advertisements, is the quickest way to ruin your vacation and dampen your mood.

We feel it’s best to do your research, chat up with some local friends, or read on to find out what you should look out for:

Check the clothing labels

scam alert

Korean fashion and streetwear have taken the global fashion scene by storm and no one leaves Seoul without first buying some clothes. Before you make your purchases, check the clothing labels to confirm where they were manufactured.

It is not uncommon to occasionally find clothing tags and/or labels with Chinese characters hiding among other Korean labels in a local brand clothing store.

Chances are you can get these — those with Chinese characters — cheaper on Taobao or even in Singapore. I have seen tote bags without labels in Chinatown Singapore being sold at $10 for 3, but the same tote bag costs 6000 KRW (approximately $7) for one in Seoul. Another tip: Look out for labels that states “Designed in Korea” instead of “Made in Korea”, as these usually means they are designed by local designers but manufactured in other countries such as China.

Question ridiculously cheap cosmetic products

scam alert

A few years ago, a store in Ewha Womens University made the headlines for selling fake cosmetic products at unbelievably cheap prices. The store only allowed foreigners and non-locals to make purchases. This was possibly because discerning Koreans would have found out that the products were not authentic and would have made a fuss about it thereafter.

If something sounds too cheap to be true, it probably is.

Follow the GPS

scam alert

Like in Bangkok, if a taxi driver quotes you a flat rate, always ask for a metered rate because that is the standard in South Korea. But even so, it does not mean that you can put your mind at ease, at least not until you get to your destination.

Most drivers in Seoul these days would input your destination into the GPS immediately before driving off, but if your driver refuses to do so, it is highly likely that he or she is trying to earn some extra cash by taking you on a longer route or on an unnecessary tour around the area on the pretext of pretending to be lost.

Make sure the taxi driver inputs the address into the GPS and follows the navigation system.

If you do not understand Korean, however, that does not prevent the driver from putting in the wrong address on purpose. Naver Map is now available in English, so you can also make use of the app to check approximately how much the taxi fare will be.

Make your purchase carefully

Besides Myeongdong, Dongdaemun is the one place that tourists frequent most. Which is why it is no surprise to know that here’s also where tourist scams occur the most.

As a rule of thumb, if the prices of items are not clearly stated, you should probably avoid making a purchase from the store.

That is not to say that it is not possible to be scammed even though the prices are clearly stated. There was once when my friends and I had a meal at a pojangmacha (small tented street stall) in Dongdaemun, and the price of our meal came up to be 10,000 KRW more expensive than what it was supposed to be. The pojangmacha vendor told us that the pajeon (scallion pancake) we ordered costs 12,000 KRW, although the four of us saw that it was marked as 2,000 KRW on the menu. When we asked for the menu to confirm our calculations, however, we were not allowed to pick up the menu (even though it was right in front of us!).

While most of these tourist traps and scams might amount to petty sums so most tourists just leave without making a big fuss, it actually encourages these dishonest joints to continue with their questionable business practices. In such cases, it is always easier to stop the scams from happening in the first place, rather than try to stop it after it has happened.

After all, it is more difficult to stand your ground and fight for your rights when there is a language barrier.

Have a travel scam experience? Share with us your thoughts in the comment box below!

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