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Crackdown having little effect on ticket scalpers

The Buzz:  In a news conference Monday, Olympic officials claimed they were targeting and clamping down on scalpers, arresting over 200 people and confiscating about 340 tickets.
Beijing During The Olympic Games
Dutch tourist Jannemen Bosman negotiates with ticket scalpers outside the Olympic green. Paula Bronstein / Getty Images
/ Source: contributor

"Scalping of Olympic tickets is prohibited, and breach should be punished accordingly to relevant laws and regulations."

The words — in Chinese and English — are printed on signs placed on the sidewalk around Beixinqiao subway station. They appeared some time last week, serving as a warning to the brazen scalping that was happening just a few minutes from the Olympic Green and athletic venues.

In a news conference Monday, Olympic officials claimed they were targeting and clamping down on scalpers, arresting over 200 people and confiscating about 340 tickets. A week after scoping on the scalping scene, I returned to Beixinqiao station on Tuesday to check if scalpers were scared off by the crackdown and increased attention from officials.

The quick and easy answer: No.

The only change from early last week was that scalpers had moved to the other side of the station to escape the glaring sun and sit in the shade. In fact, the scene was busier than before, as bustling as the Wangfujing Night Market. Instead of meat skewers, people were selling Olympic tickets. Out in the open. Right next to the sign threatening repercussions if they were caught.

A woman was holding five tickets for handball. She wanted 1,000 RMB ($145) for each ticket that had a face value of 50 RMB. All around her, scalpers — some professional who were holding wads of tickets, others just trying to cash in on a lone ticket — were holding up their possessions in hopes of soliciting eager buyers. There were at least 150 people packed into the sidewalk alcove beside the station.

A few paces away stood official Olympic volunteers. A police car was parked 200 feet away. And during one surreal moment, a group of security officials — their shirts said "Olympic security" — marched through the crowd on their way to another location, each one ignoring the all too obvious reality that scalping was happening right there.

"Everybody knows this is the ticket-selling place. Where are all the guards? Where is all the prohibitors?" an exasperated Maria Holm said. Holm and her husband, Eghert, had come from Sweden and were among the throng of sellers, buyers and middlemen.

"One of our reactions is that some of the guards and policeman are participating in the selling of tickets," Eghert said.

"They are definitely not prohibiting it," Maria interjected. "They're just looking the other way. That's very sad."

Hong Jian Guang, a Guangzhou resident who traveled to Beijing to watch as many events as he could, warned me that some police were exerting their authority and arresting some scalpers and buyers. But they were only hauling people away if they witnessed an exchange of tickets and money. That meant that astute buyers and sellers would go off to a corner of the subway station or down the street to make the exchange clandestinely.

Prices were still at a premium. Even for rowing, one of the least desirable events because the site was more than an hour from the city center. One man I talked to wanted 400 RMB for one ticket (with a face value of 50 RMB). He was willing to go down to 300 RMB but wouldn't budge after that.

Track and field tickets were going for at least 1,000 RMB. One man who was selling a ticket had an Olympic credential hanging around his neck. The other credential hanging from his lanyard stated that he was a performer. He didn't seem concerned that he would be caught.

But the street value for track and field deflated once Liu Xiang pulled out of the Games on Monday. Hong said that some scalpers were asking for 10,000 to 20,000 RMB before Liu's injury. Now the average price for a track and field ticket was going for 1,600 RMB.

Hong said he was disgusted by the profiteering, saying that many of the scalpers were just looking to score a big payday. None of them would ever attend an event. Some who couldn't sell their tickets would probably just keep them or throw them away, he said. The sunk cost was low — especially when the face value of many tickets was 50 to 100 RMB ($7 to $14).

Noticeably absent was Benny Daniel, a professional broker from Houston I had met the week before. I reached him on his cell phone in the early afternoon. He said that he was keeping a lower profile, saying that officials had put the squeeze on him and his crew over the weekend. He said that one of his partners had been arrested and spent 30 hours in jail. Daniel was still selling tickets, but he was at his hotel room working the phones instead of on the sidewalk.

"It's progressively gotten worse and worse," he said. "[But] the locals are still doing their thing."

I reached him again around dinnertime. He had left his hotel room, joining the other scalpers and "hustling" outside the subway station.

Was he concerned about being busted?

"There seems to be different waves of when people are busted," he said. "I'm just being extra careful now."