- Chinese gangs may be behind forging of thousands of fake Louvre passes
- One haul alone -- in Belgium -- worth almost $200,000
- France reportedly wary of diplomatic fallout
- Chinese social media users "embarrassed"
First it was Chinese tourists apparently being targeted by criminal gangs in Paris.
Roma pickpocketing crews were reportedly picking on Chinese travelers because of their habit of carrying plenty of cash with them.
Now the tables seem, in a way, to be turned.
French authorities suspect Chinese organized criminals to be behind the circulation of thousands of fake tickets to Paris' Louvre -- the world's most visited art gallery -- in a scam worth hundreds of thousands of euros.
The museum was alerted to the swindle at the beginning of August when a staff member became suspicious of a ticket handed over by a Chinese tour guide, France 24 reports.
The ticket "felt strange to the touch and the paper quality was not good. All our staff were immediately put on the alert," a Louvre spokesperson told Le Parisien.
Upping their game
But the criminals behind the scam appear to have upped their game at some point -- or more than one gang is operating.
Days later, the Louvre discovered fake tickets that at first appeared "in every way identical to the genuine article," the spokesperson said.
Then, at the end of August, Belgian customs officers seized more than 4,000 forged Louvre passes in a parcel from China.
The counterfeit tickets being worth at least €36 ($48) each, that haul alone would have saved the scammers at least €144,000 (about $191,000).
The Belgian discovery has sparked a French criminal investigation into whether criminal gangs in China are collaborating with Chinese tour operators in Paris to profit from the fake tickets, the Louvre said.
However, French officials are reportedly wary of commenting publicly on the investigation for fear of causing diplomatic embarrassment with China.
Scope of scam uncertain
The Louvre as yet has no idea of the scope of the scam.
"Our tickets are valid for a year. There's no telling how many are in circulation and there's no way as yet of calculating the cost of this scam to the museum," the Louvre said.
The gallery would "enhance [its] anti-counterfeiting system" in response to the forgeries, the gallery told the Beijing Times, emphasizing that it continued to welcome Chinese tourists.
French diplomats may be right to tread warily around the incident.
Comments on Chinese social media expressed concern about the damage the scam could do to China's image.
"Can you please stop forging? This is so embarrassing!" read one post on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter (link in Chinese language only).
"Ticket holders may not know the tickets are fake -- yet Chinese people are the ones being shamed," read another.