After helping Montgomery County launch a language-friendly consumer hotline in March, Young Ran Smith knew what she needed to do next.
The Clarksville resident and community activist, who immigrated to America from South Korea more than 40 years ago, began urging Howard County to provide a similar service to help its Korean-speaking residents avoid scams and resolve disputes.
Nearly a year later Smith, president of the Howard County chapter of the League of Korean Americans of Maryland, joined with County Executive Allan H. Kittleman on Feb. 1 to signing a memorandum of understanding creating a bilingual hot line for county residents who speak Korean.
The agreement, known as the Korean Language-Friendly Initiative, creates a dedicated phone line to be manned by volunteers from the league every Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Available to the county’s 20,000 Korean Americans, the number — 410-313-3820 — was set to be activated Feb. 8.
Howard County’s consumer protection office will also combine forces with its counterpart in Montgomery County, where 15 percent of 1 million residents are Korean-American, in submitting monthly articles on consumer news to Korean newspapers and in sharing advertising costs.
Using the newly unveiled outreach effort as a template, Rebecca Bowman, administrator of Howard County’s Office of Consumer Protection, said she is already working to set up a second dedicated line for Spanish-speaking residents.
“Young was instrumental in getting this done,” Bowman said of the partnership. “She’s energetic and well connected in the Korean community, and I have high hopes for this.”
For her part, Smith is thrilled to be helping her fellow Korean-Americans.
When she retired in 2000 from a 23-year career in information technology with the American Association of Retired Persons, she decided to volunteer more within the Korean community.
But she soon realized she was facing an issue she hadn’t anticipated: She was no longer proficient in Korean after having lived in America since 1976.
“I came here with my family when I was 16, and it was really hard,” she said of moving from Seoul to York, Pa. At that time, she started the 10th grade without knowing much English.
It was ironic to her to discover decades later that she was facing a language barrier again, but in reverse.
“My mother tongue should’ve come back to me naturally, but that really didn’t happen,” Smith said. “I had been away from the language for so long since my husband is American and I was no longer speaking it at home, so I was hesitant at first.”
Smith’s need to reacclimate to speaking Korean made her that much more empathetic to the language barrier some senior Korean-Americans face, and especially to the role it can play in increasing their vulnerability to scams and unfair trade practices.
“Many Korean-Americans don’t know their rights as consumers,” said Smith, who is also in her second year as a member of the county’s consumer protection office advisory board, whose seven members are appointed to five-year terms.
Smith often hears stories from Korean-American seniors who come to the Bain Center in Columbia, where she regularly assists with translating documents and helping people register to vote and become American citizens.
Seniors who have had a dispute with a business owner or fallen victim to a scam are often reluctant to file a complaint out of pride, she said.
“They feel embarrassed or ashamed and they tell me, ‘I thought I was smart and then this happened,’ ” she said.
She recalled one instance in which a woman told her she had ordered furniture that was damaged during delivery, but when the store owner had refused to replace it, she didn’t know where to turn.
“Korean-Americans need to let people know what has happened to them so they can get help, but also so they can help others from making the same mistakes,” Smith said.
Bowman echoed Smith’s observations.
“Our seniors are often afraid to say anything because they don’t want to jeopardize their independence” if they are deemed unable to manage their affairs, she said.
“If what happened to them was a true scam, there may be nothing that can be done. But often, there is,” she said.
Noting callers can also receive aid in contacting related agencies regarding a complaint or dispute, Bowman said the county’s intent is “to do as much wrap-around [within county government] as we can.”
Eric Friedman, director of the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection, said his office’s agreement began with the Korean-American population, but access to speakers of Chinese, Spanish and French was quickly incorporated into the service.
Friedman praised Smith for her involvement in the League of Korean Americans, which is based in Silver Spring, and her work on Howard County’s advisory board, which allows her “to bridge the two counties.”
Friedman also said he was impressed that Kittleman took part in the signing. At the ceremony launching the service, the county executive told Korean Americans who attended: “You are the first … and what you’re doing is going to make a difference for other members of our community.”
“Most scams don’t have jurisdictional borders, so it’s nice that we’re able to do this together,” Friedman said of the intercounty collaboration.
Bowman said Smith is planning to meet with Korean merchants and associations to help spread word of the county’s outreach effort.
“Young is a real advocate for the Korean American community and she will help ensure this initiative is a success,” she said.