Nicole Ma just wanted to come home.
The Chinese student’s first year of study abroad at Syracuse University in upstate New York had been disrupted by the coronavirus. It was late March and her dorm was closed, her classes had been moved online, and the number of cases in New York City was increasing day by day. Mom saw no reason to stay.
But she was stuck. Only a small number of flights were allowed to China, and Ma was unable to secure a seat. On four occasions, she bought tickets from well-known travel websites, but the flights were canceled.
Feeling hopeless, Ma turned to some of the darker corners of the internet and quickly found a seemingly legitimate business that promised a ticket. She sent nearly $ 4000 into the ether. The ticket never came.
Looking back, she feels crazy to have been duped. But at the time, “I was too anxious to ask for anything,” Ma recalls.
She was not alone. In early April, as the virus began to spread around the world after emerging from the Chinese city of Wuhan, more than 85% of the 1.6 million Chinese students who enrolled in overseas schools in 2020 remained abroad, China’s vice foreign minister said at a press conference. Tens of thousands of them were at universities in California, which attract more Chinese students than schools in any other state. Millions of other Chinese were working abroad.
Air traffic to China, meanwhile, fell in late March when government officials in Beijing imposed restrictions restrictions which limited Chinese airlines to one international flight per week to a particular country and only allowed foreign airlines to one weekly flight within the country. Rules have been relaxed somewhat in recent weeks, but the country remains largely closed at a time when many Chinese living abroad are anxious to return home.
The crooks seized the opportunity. Although figures on the number of people swindled are not available, victims of ticket scams have lit up Chinese social media during the pandemic, complaining online about the loss of money and the reluctance of police to China or elsewhere to investigate cases.
With so many of their students stranded abroad, efforts by Chinese authorities to help them have failed. Embassies distributed 500,000 “Health kits”, including face masks and disinfectants, and organized webinars and support groups. The government also organized dozens of charter flights to bring Chinese citizens back to the United States, including some 7,000 students.
But those who were left to fend for themselves had to navigate a murky online market for airline tickets in which scammers mingled with legitimate brokers.
Letitia Wang was among the students who were alone. Wang, who graduated from USC Engineering School in the spring, had planned for a job in a school lab, but decided to return home to Anhui Province, China. east China, as the virus took hold in the state.
She waded through the same online quagmire as Ma. One ticket offer was tagged with multiple comments from people warning they had been scammed by the broker. Another broker offered Wang an economy seat from San Francisco to Shanghai for nearly $ 11,500.
“I would never find it” if it was another fake, Wang said. “Spending so much money on a plane ticket makes me look rich and stupid. “
Although impatient to return home, Wang decided not to take the risk. Instead, she chose to buy a ticket directly from an airline, but it’s for a flight in late October, and with China’s flight restrictions, there’s a good chance it will be canceled.
The experience left Wang angry enough that when she learned this week that she had been granted a seat on an upcoming charter flight organized by the Chinese consulate, she did not cancel the October reservation. Until she gets on the plane home, she’s not taking any chances, she said.
Tiffany Tian, 20, a broker who sells premium plane tickets, said growing demand had left her in a constant rush to get tickets to China despite longstanding ties to his business with travel agencies that receive tickets directly from airlines. . The tickets, she said, are ripped within minutes of being released.
And on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, and other sites, it’s almost indistinguishable from scammers from genuine brokers, Tian said. Scammers often have tens of thousands of subscribers, Weibo verified accounts, and a flow of real-looking messages about tickets for actual flights, Tian said.
Ma’s friend directed her to someone who worked for a company called Victoria Harbor Airlines on the WeChat messaging app. Ma trusted her friend and the person’s online profile looked legitimate, so she applied for a ticket from New York to Guangzhou in southern China.
The response was swift and promising: “I will request a seat for you and the ticket will be secured within 48 hours. You have to pay a deposit now and pay the rest after you get the ticket. If I do not receive the ticket, I will return the deposit to you.
Mom sent the big deposit, but after a few days of nervous waiting for the ticket to arrive, she decided to look elsewhere. She tried her luck with another outfit on WeChat, which ended up with a ticket. For weeks, she demanded a refund from the first broker, who chained her with vague promises that the money would come soon, then stopped responding altogether.
It wasn’t until Ma threatened to file a police report that the person resurfaced.
“What did the police say?” the message requested. “What do you know? Are you sure you want to get the money back or are you just causing trouble?”
When another deadline for a refund passed at the end of June, Ma contacted the Guangzhou police. They refused to take the case into their own hands, telling Ma that she should report her to the police in the United States.
“The crook is in China,” Ma recalls. “How did the American police get hold of him? “
A few hours’ drive north of Ma, a Chinese student at the University of Toronto consoled himself by drawing the attention of the police.
Before sending in the $ 3,660 requested by a potential seller, Zhang, who requested that only his first name be used, checked a popular flight information app to confirm that the flight and seats he thought he was booking were real.
Relief, however, quickly turned to suspicion when the ticket didn’t arrive in his inbox.
He called the police in both countries. Canadian authorities refused to help, but Chinese police took the matter into their own hands.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “Someone is investigating my case. “
Ping C. Shen, a lawyer from Pasadena who has handled cases of Chinese student scams, said police in China are much better placed to investigate these types of scams, since criminals operate on social media. Chinese. And while the FBI and other US federal agencies have aggressively targeted pandemic scams In the United States, there’s not much they can do for people like Ma unless the victim quickly contacts her bank and is able to freeze the transaction, said Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles. Angeles.
“Once the money goes overseas, the chances of getting it back are slim to none,” Eimiller said, adding that victims of online scams can lodge complaints with the FBI electronically.
Frustrated, Ma searched online for help and found that other Chinese students who had been pushed around had formed groups on WeChat.
In one of the groups, around 100 students studying in the United States, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere exchanged stories about the different techniques used by the crooks. Among them, the students had lost more than $ 285,000, according to three members who asked that their names not be used.
The question resonated in China. There have been articles about ripped off students in mainstream newspapers and for several days it was a trending topic on Weibo, where over 120 million people saw a hashtag about it and left thousands of comments.
“Does anyone care about us?” Asked one commentator, who said he lost about $ 3,200 trying to get home after studying in Japan. “Trust no one, they are all crooks. “
Since returning to China in April, Ma has felt nagging guilt as her parents fought over the money she lost on her fraudulent ticket. Tracking down the person who took their money for a refund every day is exhausting.
Ma was surprised when the person returned a few hundred dollars earlier this month. She has little hope of ever seeing the rest.
It could be worse, she knows that. “Many other students have not returned to China,” she said. “Their money… has been swindled. “