Cyber scalpers

Tickets: Ordering concert seats online offers convenience, but it also provides numerous opportunities for buyers to get ripped off.

October 23, 2003|By Brad Kava | Brad Kava,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SAN JOSE, Calif. - San Jose photographer Jeff Maloney never misses a Jimmy Buffett show, so when good seats sold out for a concert last month at Shoreline Amphitheatre in nearby Mountain View, Calif., before he could buy any, he purchased eight for $880 from a scalper on the popular Craig's List Web site.

But when Buffett canceled the show to fly back to Alabama to be with his sick mother, Maloney learned a hard lesson: He thought he had lost all the money he had paid for the tickets.

New technologies that let you buy and print tickets online or buy them at a host of auction sites have given buyers more reasons to beware. Along with speed and convenience, new methods of buying tickets present a host of ways for unknowing buyers to get ripped off.

Maloney, 46, assumed that his tickets were like cash, and when the show was canceled, he could cut his losses by returning each for its $69 face value.

What he didn't know was that because the person who sold them to him had paid with a credit card, that person was the only one who could get the money. In fact, the scalper got paid twice, once from Maloney and once from Ticketmaster.

The tickets that Maloney was clutching when he drove to a Ticketmaster outlet to get a refund were worthless.

"I'm really angry," Maloney said. "Ticketmaster profits. The scalpers profit. Only the fans lose out."

The past year has seen a quiet revolution in the ticket industry that many fans haven't caught up with.

When you go to Shoreline, tickets are no longer ripped. Instead, they are scanned by computers, the same way groceries are checked at the market.

That makes for some big advantages. For one thing, Internet users can print the bar code on their home computer system, eliminating the need to pick up a ticket at the box office or have it mailed. (In Europe, the technology goes a step further. Ticket codes can be sent and scanned on cell phones. Your phone becomes your ticket to the show.)

Lost tickets that were purchased by credit card can be replaced. The ticketing company simply voids the first bar code and prints another. In the old days, if you lost it, the ticket was gone.

But therein lies the danger. An unscrupulous seller has a perfect-looking counterfeit ticket. He could sell the voided ticket and the buyer wouldn't know it until he or she tried to get in the theater doors.

The other big change has been on Internet auction sites, such as eBay. The site has been publicizing the growth of its ticket auctions, which enable fans to pay what they choose for tickets.

But the auctions have spawned problems.

First, if a show is canceled and the ticket was paid for by credit card, only the cardholder gets reimbursed.

Cancellations are rare: There have been two this year at local promoter Bill Graham Presents' 1,600 shows.

Ticketmaster spokesman Larry Solters said his company's responsibility to give a refund ends with the person who bought the ticket. The company automatically credits the buyer's credit card when a show is canceled.

"That makes sense for the 16,000 people who bought tickets legitimately," Solters says. "They love the fact that they don't have to save a ticket or go to the box office and the money is automatically refunded."

If the ticket was bought with cash, it can be refunded at the place of purchase, a system in place to prevent small outlets from being deluged with people needing cash.

For the person who buys a ticket at a secondary auction site - that is, one other than a Ticketmaster site - no refund is guaranteed.

Doug Galen, eBay's vice president of ticket auctions, said sellers on the site were choosing to give full refunds for the canceled Buffett shows.

Auction sites also have no way to guarantee that a ticket is valid, although eBay's method of having customers rate sellers provides some policing.

Galen suggests also that buyers should talk with sellers to try to validate what is being sold.

But that system didn't work for Maloney, who tried to find tickets on eBay before he checked Craig's List.

"Three hours after it was sold out, there were tickets for sale on eBay from people in Canada, Kansas and New York," he said. "These weren't fans. They were obviously people who bought them to scalp them. It's tougher and tougher to get a ticket. There is so much competition for each concert now, that regular people like me and my wife can't get good seats."

He bought his tickets from a local seller, so he could meet the guy face to face.

"If I buy tickets from Kansas or Ohio, what can I do if they tell me they won't refund my money?" said Maloney.

When Craig Newmark, who started Craig's List, was informed of the problem, Newmark decided to take matters into his own hands.

"In cases like this, I take things personally, in part because my name is on the site, in part because I'm an engineer; I'm a nerd and I don't know any better," Newmark said. "My current practice would be to e-mail the seller and ask him to work out a deal with the buyer. I hate to get in the middle of these things, but once in a while it's the right thing."

There was some good news for Maloney last week.

Even before Newmark could work it out, Maloney was able to contact the seller, who had been in Thailand. He agreed to refund the $640 - the original face value plus service charges. That left Maloney out of pocket $240. He's not satisfied.

"The ticket companies should do something about scalping, like the record companies did [about piracy]," he said. "If they sued the scalpers, they could stop it."

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