LOS ANGELES -- Nicole Ma just wanted to get home.


The Chinese student's first year studying abroad at Syracuse University in upstate New York had been upended by the coronavirus. It was the end of March and her dormitory was shuttered, her classes had moved online, and the number of cases in New York was rising by the day. Ma saw no reason to stay.


But she was stuck. Only a small number of flights were being allowed into China and Ma couldn't get a seat. Four times she bought tickets on well-known travel websites, only to have the flights canceled.


Feeling desperate, Ma turned to some of the more shadowy corners of the internet and quickly found a legitimate-looking company that promised a ticket. She sent nearly $4,000 into the ether. The ticket never came.


Looking back, she feels foolish for being duped. But at the time, "I was too anxious to ask anything," Ma recalled.


She was not alone. In early April, as the virus had begun its spread around the world after emerging from the Chinese city of Wuhan, more than 85% of the 1.6 million Chinese students who had enrolled at schools overseas in 2020 remained abroad, China's vice foreign minister said at a news conference. 


Tens of thousands of them were at California universities, which draw more Chinese students than schools in any other state. Millions more Chinese were working abroad.


Air traffic into China, meanwhile, plummeted in late March when government officials in Beijing imposed tight restrictions that limited Chinese airlines to one international flight each week to a particular country and allowed foreign airlines only one weekly flight into the country. 


The rules have been eased somewhat in recent weeks, but the country remains largely shut off at a moment when many Chinese living abroad are eager to return home.


Scammers seized on the opportunity. While figures on the number of people swindled are not available, victims of ticket scam have lit up Chinese social media during the pandemic, commiserating online about the loss of money and the reluctance of police in China or elsewhere to investigate cases.


With so many of their students stranded abroad, efforts by Chinese officials to assist them have fallen short. Embassies distributed 500,000 "health kits," including face masks and sanitizers, and organized online seminars and self-help groups. 


The government also arranged dozens of charter flights to bring back Chinese citizens in the U.S., including some 7,000 students.


But those who were left to fend for themselves had to navigate a murky online marketplace for airline tickets in which fraudsters mixed with legitimate brokers.


Letitia Wang was among the students who were on their own. Wang, who graduated in the spring from USC's engineering school, had lined up a job in a laboratory at the school, but decided to return home to Anhui province in eastern China as the virus took hold in the state.


She waded into the same online morass as Ma. 


One ticket offer was tagged with several 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 him" if it was another fake, Wang said. "Spending so much money on a flight ticket makes me look rich and stupid."


Although eager to get home, Wang decided not to risk it. She instead chose to buy a ticket directly from an airline, but it is for a flight in late October, and with China's flight restrictions there is a good chance it will be canceled.


The experience left Wang sufficiently unnerved that when she learned recently that she had been given a seat on a charter flight organized by the Chinese Consulate, she didn't cancel the October reservation. Until she's on a plane heading home, she's not taking any chances, she said.


Tiffany Tian, 20, a broker who sells airline tickets at marked-up prices, said the surging demand has left her in a constant scramble to get hold of any tickets to China despite her company's longtime ties with travel agencies that receive tickets directly from airlines. Tickets, she said, are snatched up within minutes of being released.


And on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform akin to Twitter, and other sites, it is nearly impossible to distinguish scam artists from authentic brokers, Tian said. Scammers often have tens of thousands of followers, accounts verified by Weibo, and a stream of real-looking posts about tickets for actual flights, Tian said.


Since returning to China in April, Ma has felt nagging guilt as her parents argued over the money she lost on her fraudulent ticket. Hounding the person who took her 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 she'll ever see the rest.


It could be worse, she knows. "Many other students haven't got back to China," she said. "Their money ... has all been swindled."







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Scammers find Chinese all too eager to fly home



LOS ANGELES -- Nicole Ma just wanted to get home.


The Chinese student's first year studying abroad at Syracuse University in upstate New York had been upended by the coronavirus. It was the end of March and her dormitory was shuttered, her classes had moved online, and the number of cases in New York was rising by the day. Ma saw no reason to stay.


But she was stuck. Only a small number of flights were being allowed into China and Ma couldn't get a seat. Four times she bought tickets on well-known travel websites, only to have the flights canceled.


Feeling desperate, Ma turned to some of the more shadowy corners of the internet and quickly found a legitimate-looking company that promised a ticket. She sent nearly $4,000 into the ether. The ticket never came.


Looking back, she feels foolish for being duped. But at the time, "I was too anxious to ask anything," Ma recalled.


She was not alone. In early April, as the virus had begun its spread around the world after emerging from the Chinese city of Wuhan, more than 85% of the 1.6 million Chinese students who had enrolled at schools overseas in 2020 remained abroad, China's vice foreign minister said at a news conference. 


Tens of thousands of them were at California universities, which draw more Chinese students than schools in any other state. Millions more Chinese were working abroad.


Air traffic into China, meanwhile, plummeted in late March when government officials in Beijing imposed tight restrictions that limited Chinese airlines to one international flight each week to a particular country and allowed foreign airlines only one weekly flight into the country. 


The rules have been eased somewhat in recent weeks, but the country remains largely shut off at a moment when many Chinese living abroad are eager to return home.


Scammers seized on the opportunity. While figures on the number of people swindled are not available, victims of ticket scam have lit up Chinese social media during the pandemic, commiserating online about the loss of money and the reluctance of police in China or elsewhere to investigate cases.


With so many of their students stranded abroad, efforts by Chinese officials to assist them have fallen short. Embassies distributed 500,000 "health kits," including face masks and sanitizers, and organized online seminars and self-help groups. 


The government also arranged dozens of charter flights to bring back Chinese citizens in the U.S., including some 7,000 students.


But those who were left to fend for themselves had to navigate a murky online marketplace for airline tickets in which fraudsters mixed with legitimate brokers.


Letitia Wang was among the students who were on their own. Wang, who graduated in the spring from USC's engineering school, had lined up a job in a laboratory at the school, but decided to return home to Anhui province in eastern China as the virus took hold in the state.


She waded into the same online morass as Ma. 


One ticket offer was tagged with several 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 him" if it was another fake, Wang said. "Spending so much money on a flight ticket makes me look rich and stupid."


Although eager to get home, Wang decided not to risk it. She instead chose to buy a ticket directly from an airline, but it is for a flight in late October, and with China's flight restrictions there is a good chance it will be canceled.


The experience left Wang sufficiently unnerved that when she learned recently that she had been given a seat on a charter flight organized by the Chinese Consulate, she didn't cancel the October reservation. Until she's on a plane heading home, she's not taking any chances, she said.


Tiffany Tian, 20, a broker who sells airline tickets at marked-up prices, said the surging demand has left her in a constant scramble to get hold of any tickets to China despite her company's longtime ties with travel agencies that receive tickets directly from airlines. Tickets, she said, are snatched up within minutes of being released.


And on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform akin to Twitter, and other sites, it is nearly impossible to distinguish scam artists from authentic brokers, Tian said. Scammers often have tens of thousands of followers, accounts verified by Weibo, and a stream of real-looking posts about tickets for actual flights, Tian said.


Since returning to China in April, Ma has felt nagging guilt as her parents argued over the money she lost on her fraudulent ticket. Hounding the person who took her 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 she'll ever see the rest.


It could be worse, she knows. "Many other students haven't got back to China," she said. "Their money ... has all been swindled."







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