Fifty wives of gay men in China say a website set up to provide them with support in their marriage has defrauded them, state media reports.

The Communist Party-run People’s Daily reports that they were cheated out of more than 90,000 yuan (US$14,176) when they joined the “Homeland for Gay’s Wife”.

The straight wives say the website took advantage of their “low social status” while promising to enable them to divorce their gay husbands.

In February, Professor Zhang Bei-chuan of Qingdao University estimated 16 million women were married to gays who marry women under social pressure. He said the huge number of women – equivalent to the population of the Netherlands – who have tied the knot with gay men were struggling to cope.

Speaking to state-run China Daily, the academic said as many as 90 percent of gay Chinese men marry to conform with social norms.

According to Professor Zhang Bei-chuan’s estimate, roughly 3 percent of the country’s adult population is in a gay-straight marriage.

In the People’s Daily, the anonymous wives’ open letter said: “We straight wives trusted the forum when we were struggling in the mud of our marriages. We are sorry to end up here but we’ve realized that its owners were taking advantage of our fragile emotions and low social status so they can harm us once more.”

It alleges a 1,000 Yuan deposit (£100) was required of each woman before she could use the forum. Volunteer moderators were charged 2,000 Yuan (£200) for training which never materialised and wives were asked to pay 150 Yuan (£15) each month for “psychological guidance classes”.

China is notorious for its restriction and monitoring of citizens’ internet use.

The letter continued: “In the name of a nonprofit welfare platform, Yao and her partner An Yao cheated us.

“And they cursed victims who wanted their money back and threatened to publish their private information.”

Yao, the website founder, reportedly told victims it was her male partner, An Yao, who was responsible, having absconded after the letter was made public. Police are investigating while the victims call for the site, which is not accessible from the UK today, to be shut down.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in the People’s Republic in 1997 and its status as a mental disorder revoked in 2001, but legal protection for gays is minimal with no non-discrimination or marriage rights and strong censorship rules.