Thirty members of a criminal gang have been detained in east China for allegedly fleecing sympathetic social media users who thought they were helping a woman escape a forced marriage.
The scam started late last year with the woman adding men on WeChat - China's most popular social media app - and then telling them her family had accepted a bride price for her to marry four brothers, none of whom she loved, the Xinmin Evening News reported on Thursday.
She said she ran away but felt obliged to pay back the money and the only way she could do so was by selling cordyceps - a fungus used in traditional Chinese medicine - online. Her posts were accompanied by images of a young woman holding out a handful of the traditional Chinese medicine and a request for people to buy it, the report said.
In the weeks that followed about 300 men, most aged between 30 and 50, agreed to help, with many of them foregoing the actual product and instead just making a donation to the woman's cause. Others paid more than 100 yuan (S$20) for a single piece of cordyceps that had a retail value of just 20 yuan.
It was only when they were contacted by the investigating officers that most of the victims realised they had been duped.
"A woman added me on WeChat in December and after chatting for some time said she was in trouble and did not want to be chained to a marriage," a man surnamed Li was quoted as saying. "I gave her 30,000 yuan out of sympathy as she was all alone."
He said he wanted to help the woman - who did not exist beyond the photograph used by the fraudsters - after she told him she had been forced into marrying four brothers.
The police investigation led officers to the city of Xinyu in Jiangxi province where they discovered the gang and detained the 30 suspects, the report said.
It did not say when they would face trial but estimated they had cheated their victims out of more than 800,000 yuan (US$119,000).
Cordyceps, also known as "Himalayan Viagra", is a fungus that lives on certain caterpillars found in mountainous regions of China. Highly prized by practitioners and devotees of traditional Chinese medicine, it is mostly used to treat kidney disorders and impotence, and to improve athletic performance.