The brainwashing of the slaves of the pyramids

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The brainwashing of the slaves of the pyramids

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Policemen raid a basement where college students live and work for a pyramid scheme “marketing” company on Aug. 24. By Byun Sun-goo

This week, the JoongAng Ilbo published a special investigative report about so-called marketing companies who prey on relatively poor students and fresh college graduates.

The companies operate as a combination pyramid scheme and cynical self-help cult: they lure young people with few opportunities in rural areas to Seoul with promises of a good job. When they get to the big city, they’re forced to borrow money from banks to give to the marketing companies. In exchange, they’re given indoctrination and basic consumer merchandise like vitamins, socks and wallets and told to go out and sell them - and get rich.

The young people are forced to live in appalling conditions and are brainwashed by constant lectures that take advantage of their isolation and psychological vulnerability. As a result, even when police manage to raid their residences and free them, they don’t want to leave. They continue to believe the lies told to them by the companies’ managers: sooner or later they will get rich as long as they struggle hard - and stay in Seoul.

After the report was published, parents of victims called the JoongAng Ilbo to tell stories of their victimized children. A 53-year-old mother surnamed Lee, who just barely got her 22-year-old daughter out of the clutches of a Macheon-dong “marketing” company, said her daughter was under 24-hour surveillance. A male manager in his late 20s followed her wherever she went. When she had to use the toilet, he insisted she keep the door open so he could watch.

When the scant money provided by the company for food ran out, the young people were forced to beg near a church, and sometimes donated blood just for the snacks - Choco Pies and milk - given to donors.

Another victim’s father surnamed Park, 55, said his 21-year-old son contracted tuberculosis from living in such wretched conditions. He said for a normal meal, 15 students would share two bowls of rice and a soup made of eggs and boiled water. They couldn’t wash their plates because they didn’t have money for detergent. At every meal, some students had to eat with their hands because they only had five sets of chopsticks and spoons. A competitive ritual took place before every meal as they fought for the chopsticks. And the students, following their brainwashing, believed this was a good thing because it trained them to be more competitive, which would ensure their future success. Park’s son was forced to borrow 9 million won ($7,600) from a savings bank, money that was taken by the company.

A 27-year-old male surnamed Yoo, a survivor of the marketing company ordeal, said the students get brainwashed within four or five days of their arrival in Seoul. “The managers repeatedly drum in the idea that these hard experiences, enduring the travails of living poor, are an essential foundation for making a successful life in the future,” Yoo said.

The Songpa District Police, which raided six premises used by a marketing company in August, finding 115 students and fresh graduates in virtual confinement, said the original pyramid scheme marketing company was called Japan Life, which was founded in the late 1980s. It was originally a branch of a Japanese company, but became independent in 1997 and all of its executives were eventually Korean. It changed its name to SMK in the same year. In 2002, some of the workers accused the company of imprisoning them and beating them when they didn’t reach their sales targets. The CEO was jailed and the company was shut down by a court.

But the concept had taken root, and dozens of SMK’s managers spread throughout Seoul setting up their own companies. The new companies continued the abuse and brainwashing of young people. But part of the brainwashing was the idea that they too could run such a company in the future and get rich - that the pain of the present would lead to success and wealth, however unethical and illegal - and that produced succeeding waves of swindlers. According to Songpa District Police, the number of pyramid scheme marketing companies has now reached at least 5,000.

“I’m very positive there are even more in the country,” said Hwang Woon-ha, the chief investigator of the case for the Songpa police said. “We came up with the 5,000 estimate after only three months of investigation. The swindlers may think that the investigation is a temporary thing, but it won’t stop until this social evil is stamped out.”

In fact, stamping out the marketing companies won’t be easy. First, the young people are carefully coached to say they aren’t coerced and are working for the companies voluntarily. And many, unaware of how brainwashed they are, believe that. And there are no specific laws or regulations banning such marketing companies.

“If the students say they did everything of their own free will, including purchasing junk at ridiculous prices and applying for bank loans, they can’t be treated as victims,” an investigator said. “There is no solution unless the government provides a specific policy against the pyramid schemes.”

And in the past, when victims sued, the companies hired expensive lawyers, some of whom were former prosecutors in Seoul, to drag the cases out in court. The young and poor victims eventually gave up, not being able to afford good lawyers or a protracted court battle.

“Once those experienced lawyers are hired by the marketing companies, the game is over,” the investigator continued. “One student, who had to surrender 7 million won to the swindlers, sued his company but dropped it after recognizing that he wouldn’t get his money back.”

Officials from the National Police Agency and the Blue House are promising to help the Songpa police’s investigation. Cho Hyun-oh, commissioner of the National Police Agency, said on Wednesday, “We will thoroughly investigate these frauds that destroy young students’ lives.”

But the pyramid marketing companies already see them coming.

During the raids in August, the Songpa police discovered a manual given to the students instructing them how to react in case of a police raid.

First, it said, tell the police that any manager is an instructor invited to give a lecture on business skills.

Second, it commanded, burn all records of sales, purchases and loans.

Third, the manual said, tell the police that all the activity performed at the company was strictly voluntarily.

Not surprisingly, the students questioned by the Songpa police after the August raids followed the manual to the letter.

When a 22-year-old male student was being questioned, his 51-year-old mother arrived at the police station to help him out. The student yelled at his mother. “What made you come over here?” he shouted. “Go back home and wait for me until I bring a lot of money!”


By Special Reporting Team [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]


한글 관련 기사 [중앙일보]

부모가 와도 “난 안 간다” 그곳은 사이비 종교였다

[탐사 기획] 거마 대학생 5000명 슬픈 동거 <하> 부실한 법이 피해 키웠다
경찰 “피해자는 있는데 처벌받는 사람 없어”

“피해자는 있는데 처벌받는 이는 없다.”

 불법 다단계를 수사 중인 서울 송파경찰서 다단계 특별 수사팀 황동길 경감의 말이다. 법망에 허점이 있기 때문이다. 불법 다단계꾼들은 이를 교묘히 활용한다.

 취재팀은 지난달 26일 수사팀에 출석한 불법 다단계 업체 간부인 이모(45)씨의 수사과정을 지켜봤다.

 -하위 판매원 대부분이 대학생인데.

 “판매원 신분은 아는 바 없다.”

 -대학생들을 어떻게 데려오나.

 “스스로 찾아온 것이다. 개인 사정은 모른다.”

 -강제 합숙 사실은 알고 있나.

 “자취방에서 생활한다고 들었다. 강제 합숙이라니 무슨 소린가.”

 이씨는 경찰의 모든 질문에 부인으로 일관하는 ‘모르쇠 작전’을 썼다. 이들은 경찰이 압수 자료를 들이대도 눈 하나 꿈쩍하지 않는다. 업체들은 단속에 대비한 매뉴얼도 갖고 있다. 경찰이 압수한 한 피해 대학생의 강의 노트에는 ‘경찰수사’라는 부분이 따로 있다.

 “오래된 서류는 다 정리하라. 고문(다단계업체 최고위급 간부)님은 외부에서 초청한 사람(이라고 진술). 구매서류는 잃어버렸다고 할 것. 마감서류(다단계 관련 매출기록 장부)는 소각.”

 방장 출신인 유모(27)씨는 “경찰에 모두 자신의 의지로 선택한 일이라고 진술하도록 정신교육을 시킨다”고 밝혔다. 합숙 등 강제 수용의 증거도 부인하게 한다. 다단계에 빠져든 피해 대학생들을 집으로 돌려보내는 일도 쉽지 않다. 상당수는 여전히 성공할 수 있다는 착각에서 헤어나지 못한다. 부모가 데려가려 해도 거부하는 경우가 많을 정도다. 7월부터 수사를 진행해 온 수사팀원들은 이들에 대해 “사이비 종교에 빠져든 사람들과 다를 게 없다”고 입을 모은다.

 7월 말 송파경찰서 다단계 특별 수사팀에 박모(51·여)씨가 찾아왔다. 그는 “아들이 거여·마천동에서 불법 다단계를 하고 있는 것 같으니 찾아 달라”고 애원했다. 박씨는 경찰의 도움을 받아 며칠을 수소문한 끝에 마천동 한 합숙소에서 아들을 찾았다.

하지만 아들은 “조금만 더 고생하면 되는데 방해하려고 찾아왔느냐”며 오히려 강하게 반발했다. 아무리 설득해도 집으로 돌아가지 않으려는 아들을 두고 박씨는 발길을 돌려야 했다. 

 불법 다단계 업체는 단속을 두려워하지 않는다. 현행 방문판매법의 허점을 이용하면 빠져나갈 수 있다고 믿기 때문이다. 실제 방판법으로 형사처벌받는 경우는 손에 꼽을 정도다. 공정거래위원회의 시정명령이 떨어져도 행정소송을 통해 취소 판결을 받아오는 사례도 적지 않다.

 2009년 이후 공정위가 불법 다단계업체에 내린 5건의 시정명령 중 3건이 법원에서 취소 처분 판결을 받았다. 공정위 관계자는 “다단계 판매로 인정되면 방판법에 따라 강요, 기만행위, 강제합숙, 탈퇴방해 등을 엄격히 처벌할 수 있다”며 “하지만 불법 업체들은 방판법의 ‘소비자 요건’ 조항을 악용해 이를 피해간다”고 지적했다.

 합법적인 다단계에서는 소비자가 먼저 물건을 써보고 만족하면 판매원으로 등록하도록 돼 있다. 그 다음에 업체로부터 물건을 구매해 다른 이들에게 팔아야 한다. 하지만 불법 다단계 업체들은 이 과정을 피한다. 이들은 피해자들을 먼저 판매원으로 가입시킨 후 고액의 물건을 떠안긴다. 이런 편법을 쓰면 방판법 ‘소비자 요건’을 충족하지 않아 다단계 업체로 인정되지 않고 관련 규제도 받지 않는다. 공정위는 문제 해결을 위해 2009년 국회에 방판법 개정안을 제출했다. 악용 대상이 된 ‘소비자 요건’을 없애는 대신 ‘후원 방문판매’라는 개념을 새로 도입했다.

 공정위 관계자는 “기존의 순수 방문판매도, 규제를 세게 받는 다단계도 아닌 신종 불법 다단계가 문제”라며 “2년 동안 업계와 소비자단체의 상반된 입장을 절충해 마련한 대안”이라고 밝혔다. 하지만 방판법 개정안은 지난 4월 공청회 후 5개월째 법사위 소위 안건으로 채택도 안 된 채 방치된 상태다. 업계에선 개정안의 까다로운 규제 때문에 영세 방문판매업자 등 선의의 업체들이 피해를 볼 수 있다며 반발한다.

 도진석(법무법인 주원) 변호사는 “ 변종 다단계 업체들의 공통된 불법행위만 추려내 이를 직접 규제하는 조항을 만들면 될 것”이라고 제안했다.

◆탐사기획부문 = 이승녕·고성표·박민제·이서준 기자, 이정화 정보검색사

◆거마 대학생=서울 송파구 거여동·마천동에서 합숙소 생활을 하며 불법 다단계 일을 하고 있는 대학생. 5000여 명(경찰 추산)에 이르며 85% 이상이 지방 출신이다.

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