Chinese police have launched a fraud investigation over claims that scalpers charged Chinese students who were desperate to return home at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak up to 20 times the usual rate for plane tickets.
The market price for flights shot up as countries around the world began introducing flight restrictions.
Chinese media reported that the cost of return flights between China and the US or Europe rose from around 8,000-9,000 yuan (US$1,100-1,300) to around 20,000 to 40,000 yuan (US$2,900-5,800).
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But many of these tickets are suspected to have made their way into the hands of third parties, pushing the final cost up to around 100,000 yuan.
An insider at one travel company told Guangming Daily that at one point an economy class ticket had been inflated to 180,000 yuan (US$26,200).
In late March, China’s aviation regulator rolled out a controversial policy that restricted airlines to one flight per week.
As prices began to surge, the aviation authority in mid-April published a notice ordering airlines to sell tickets directly to prevent speculation, but agents still appear to have found ways round those restrictions.
A source told the newspaper that Beijing and Shanghai police have set up a specialised team to investigate the fraud claims, with several travel agencies and airline employees being investigated.
The source added that an agent at their travel company had been detained in early August on suspicion of embezzlement.
Some customers who bought the inflated price tickets have already received refunds from their travel agents, but the vast majority were unaware that the prices did not reflect the market price, local media said.
One woman from Chengdu, identified only by her surname Zhou, said that in June she had ended up paying more than 100,000 yuan to a travel agent to buy a ticket home for her son, who was studying in Vancouver.
She told the newspaper that the following month she realised the sale had violated the April guidelines and had demanded and received a refund of around 60,000 yuan.
Some overseas Chinese students said they wanted to return home because of concerns about their safety as the disease spread and racist incidents surged in various countries, while others cited the shift to online classes.
But their predicament prompted heated discussions online, with some social media users arguing they should stay where they were due to concerns they would import more Covid-19 cases into China.