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The perils of buying from abroad

Agencies that facilitate overseas orders are not always what they seem
Jan 12,2018
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Mr. Kim, a 31-year-old office worker, ordered a 75-inch television from overseas during a Black Friday sale in November.

Seven weeks later, the television has yet to show up at his door.

At the time, he was thrilled to find the deal, and on a 12-month installment plan to beat. The price was in the 2 million won ($1,800) range, about half of what he would have paid in Korea. The product description said delivery generally took 10 to 20 days. “Perfect,” Kim thought, “just in time to catch the New Year’s specials.”

The plan didn’t work out. His TV is still not here, and installments are still being withdrawn from his account every month.

Kim complained, but the only response he could get from the agency in charge of the deal was, “An insufficient workforce and bottleneck at the local customs office is causing delays for all deliveries from abroad.”

Indeed, Kim was not the only one to suffer. The website where he placed the order has been flooded with over 100 complaints about delayed deliveries. Some customers said they had been waiting for more than three months.

Kim later asked to cancel the order, but the online seller said the cancellation fee would be between 300,000 and 500,000 won.

Another customer said he purchased a 253,000 won smart watch in mid-December that was coming from the United States.

Three weeks later, the product still hasn’t arrived. The package’s status has been stuck on “delivery in progress.” The customer service center isn’t picking up, and questions uploaded to the website aren’t getting responses either.

Direct purchases from overseas have become a common way for Korean customers to buy quality products for the lowest price possible. Such purchases are often handled by local agencies that promise to purchase the product from abroad and deal with all issues related to taxes and shipping.

Most of them upload products to e-commerce sites like Gmarket and 11st, and goods bought this way are often cheaper than ones officially imported to Korea. As this purchasing method has gained popularity, the number of agencies working in the business has boomed, too.

The problem is that most of them are very small companies with minimal staff, and this has created headaches on the consumer end, from refund refusals to deliver delays of three to four months.

The worst-case scenario is the agency cutting off contact with customers and running off with their money.

On busy seasons like Black Friday, when even Korean customers take advantage of discounts in the United States, the inconvenience is aggravated as agencies and foreign websites are mobbed with orders and the Korean customs office struggles to handle the workload.

“It’s not hard to find cases of orders made on Black Friday being delivered a month later,” said one employee at a shipping agency, “but there are companies that put up exaggerated advertisements saying customers can get their products in 20 days.”

During last year’s first half, the Korea Consumer Agency, a government agency, received 5,721 complaints about direct orders from overseas. Around 34 percent were about refund or exchange refusals, another 21 percent were about payment issues or cancellation charges and 13 percent concerned delivery.

The Korea Consumer Agency said most of these companies suspected of swindling customers do not clearly post their name or logo when putting up for products for sale. Another telltale sign of fraud: Some companies don’t bother proofreading their posts, so different products might carry the same prices.

“It’s important for customers to look up the company’s information beforehand and look carefully for reviews of people who used their services before,” a spokesman at the Korea Consumer Agency said.

“Try to avoid products with excessively low prices, and if possible, make the payments with credit card installments” to cut your losses.


BY SONG WOO-YEONG [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]