BEIJING Sports fans around the world have been swindled by an international Internet scam which offered thousands of bogus tickets for the Beijing Games, Olympic officials said on Monday.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced it was taking action to shut down the fraudsters, but the move came too late to help the victims find replacement seats at the Games.
Among those left out of pocket were the families of Olympic athletes in both Australia and New Zealand, with people in the United States, Japan, Norway, China and Britain also reportedly conned by the sophisticated sting.
"We cannot accept people paying money for tickets and not getting them," said Gerhard Heiberg, an IOC executive board member.
Heiberg said the issue was raised last week, with both the IOC and the United States Olympic Committee filing a lawsuit on Friday in a district court in California, accusing at least six websites of selling illegitimate or nonexistent tickets.
However, a U.S. lawyer who said he had lost $12,000 in the fraud, accused the IOC of complacency.
"They have known about these sites for months and months and did nothing," said Jim Moriarty, the partner of a Houston-based law firm which is looking to represent fellow victims in any subsequent legal actions.
"They have dashed the hopes and dreams of thousands of people who have been planning for years to go the Games, and have already paid thousands of dollars for airfare and what they thought were legitimate tickets," he told Reuters.
STILL UP AND RUNNING
Despite last week's IOC suit, one of the sites accused of fraud -- www.beijingticketing.com -- was still operating on Monday, offering seats for numerous events, including Friday's opening ceremony, with prices topping $2,150.
The professional-looking site, which carries the official Beijing Games logo, provides a London phone number, which rang dead on Monday, and a U.S. address in Phoenix, Arizona.
Australia's Olympic Committee (AOC) offered commiserations but no solutions to the scores of Australians left out of pocket.
"Our sympathy goes to them ... but we certainly aren't in a position to step in, compensate or find other tickets," AOC chief John Coates said on Monday.
"We warned folk to only deal with authorized ticket suppliers," he told a news conference.
The press reported that some Australian nationals had been swindled out of almost $45,000. Moriarty said one unnamed individual had lost $57,000.
"The worst thing is that some people don't even know yet that they bought tickets that won't arrive," he said.
"Some were told they could pick up the tickets at an office in Beijing, and they won't be there. My guess is they sold thousands of tickets that don't exist."
Tickets for events in host city Beijing completely sold out last week, Games organizers said, leaving only seats for competitions in co-host cities still available.
Many tickets are still being offered on the e-Bay auction website, but Australia's Coates urged caution.
"There may be tickets on eBay that are delivered ... but I think it is a great risk. That would be my message," he said.
(Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann)
(Editing by Alison Williams and Miles Evans)
(For more stories visit our multimedia website "Road to Beijing" here; and see our blog at blogs.reuters.com/china)