Olympic officials have turned to the federal courts in a bid to shut down two online companies suspected of stealing money, credit card information and passport numbers from hundreds of people who thought they were buying scarce tickets to prime events in Beijing.
The International Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic Committee won a restraining order July 23 in federal court in Phoenix that shut down one of the websites, www.beijing-tickets2008.com. On Monday, the USOC and IOC plan to ask a federal judge in San Francisco for an order that would shut down www.beijingticketing.com, which remained active Friday.
Attorneys for the IOC and USOC have been in touch with authorities, and "it is our understanding that there are discussions ongoing within law enforcement as to whether the FBI will become involved," said USOC General Counsel Rana Dershowitz.
Officials said they did not know for certain whether the operators of beijing-tickets2008 were out of business, or had simply shifted to a new online address. Both companies appeared to have been operating several related websites promising to deliver hard-to-find Olympics tickets.
The websites lured people in large part by their extensive -- and allegedly illegal -- use of logos that look very similar to the official Olympic ones. The websites' names also helped them appear atop search engine results.
The sites said they couldn't deliver tickets until late in July, so many consumers didn't realize that they'd been taken until it was too late.
"Only in the last week or so have we confirmed that, in fact, there are no tickets coming through," said Dershowitz, adding that the IOC had heard from hundreds of victims in numerous countries, including England, Belgium and Australia. "We have seen no evidence that anyone has received any tickets. The best that we can tell, it's blatant fraud."
While consumers who did business with the websites welcomed the court action, some questioned why it took officials so long to act.
"I actually tried to expose them way back in February to newspapers and also to the Beijing Olympics Committee," said a resident of Charlotte, N.C., who asked not to be identified because he fears retribution from the website operators who have his personal data. "It seems like no one took it seriously until now."
Officials at the USOC and IOC say that they are unable to provide tickets or refunds for consumers who've been duped.
Olympic officials said consumers were told all along to deal only with an authorized ticket seller, New Jersey-based CoSport. Demand proved so strong that CoSport used a lottery to award tickets and quickly sold out.
David Boctor, a Los Angeles Internet entrepreneur who paid beijingticketing.com $11,505 for tickets to the opening ceremony and such popular events as swimming and diving, said he started to grow suspicious after the company stopped answering his phone calls in April and his credit card was charged for airline tickets that he didn't buy.
Yet Boctor said Friday he continues to check his mailbox, holding out hope that tickets will arrive before he, his sister and his best friend board a Beijing-bound airliner on Wednesday.
"If I failed to recognize this Internet scam, very few other individuals with less of an e-commerce background would have had a chance," said Boctor, who runs an online retail store. "So I can empathize with others in the same position."
Houston travel agent Jolanta Sochacka said that she conducted her normal due diligence before spending $57,000 for tickets on behalf of a family of seven. "I've been in business for 18 years, I'm aware that there's fraud out there," Sochacka said. "But they looked so legitimate, their website was so elaborate."
When the company stopped answering its phones, Sochacka had a friend in Arizona visit the Phoenix office mentioned on beijingticketing.com's website.
The friend called back to say the office suite was empty, and there was no evidence that the company even existed. On Wednesday, Sochacka alerted her credit card company and began hustling to find replacement tickets.
Attempts by The Times to contact beijingticketing.com by phone and e-mail were unsuccessful.
Jonathan Murray, a British national who was in Laguna Beach this week for business, said he paid beijingticketing.com $4,950 for tickets to equestrian events in Hong Kong -- a surprise for his fiancee, a professional equestrian.
The couple plans to marry next week in Switzerland and honeymoon in Hong Kong.
The trip is still on, and Murray managed to replace most of the tickets. But he's embarrassed.
"I work for a fairly large software company, and the team I manage is responsible for dealing with Internet crime," Murray said. "So it was quite amusing to everyone at work that I had been scammed on the Internet.
"The important point I'm making by talking about this is that this was a bloody good scam."
Boston-based software architect Joshua Sutherland, who paid beijingticketing.com $1,500, said the tight security, expensive software and high-end servers made the site seem legitimate.
"This wasn't cheap infrastructure and technology," Sutherland said. " . . . It's like one of those boiler room deals in the stock market. The huge office and all these people. And at the last second, they simply shut it down."
Most of the victims interviewed said they would still go to China, though they are leery about using scalpers there, given China's hard-line stance against the practice. Sutherland wondered if he'd "end up in a reeducation camp."
Said Thomas W. Dunbar, a Washington, D.C., businessman who ordered tickets from beijingticketing.com: "Now I'm resigned to the fact that I'm going to take a 12- to 13-hour plane trip, only to sit in my hotel room and watch the opening ceremony on television like tens of millions of other people around the world."