Scoring tickets to popular events can be losing battle for fans
Despite safeguards to protect buyers, online scalpers are using high-tech programs to skip the electronic lines of legitimate ticket services and sell seats at big markups on the Web.
Industry experts say the problem is reaching critical mass.
Premium floor seats for Bruce Springsteen's show at Madison Square Garden on Friday are listed on secondary ticket broker sites at more than $5,900 for a pair, while the lowest-priced pair is $200 -- a 129% increase from the face value, according to data provided by price tracker TiqIQ.com.
Meanwhile, fans anxious to see Madonna at Yankee Stadium this fall will have to pony up more than $7,000 on the secondary market for a pair of premium floor tickets or pay $80 for the lowest-priced pair, a 51% increase from the face value.
Other acts slammed this year by online scalping include Radiohead and German electronica group Kraftwerk, which is appearing next week at the Museum of Modern Art.
"There's a steady drumbeat of these instances, and I think we'll see quite a few more as the summer tour season gears up," said John Breyault, a vice president of policy at the National Consumers League. "It's going to be a problem just like it was last year."
The issue generated headlines in January, when Springsteen fans complained that Ticketmaster's site repeatedly crashed. The world's biggest online ticket service said it's working with authorities to go after scalpers.
"Early indications suggest that much of this traffic came from highly suspicious sources, implying that scalpers were using sophisticated computer programs to assault our systems and secure tickets with the sole intention of selling them in the resale market," the statement said.
Ticketmaster has declined further comment since the Springsteen incident.
How it works
Online hackers typically set up a system of different computers or scripts that are programmed to buy tickets from legitimate websites, experts say.
The programs are advanced enough to trick the legit sites into thinking that a human is placing the orders.
Even if a site restricts how many tickets can be bought at any given time using the same credit card, hackers may use stolen credit card numbers from the black market to purchase a large amount of tickets at once, according to experts.
So when tickets go on sale for shows that hackers are targeting, a real person can have a hard time beating a system of computers programmed to buy blocs of tickets at lightning speed.
The tickets are then posted by the hackers or their cohorts on any number of secondary ticket websites unaffiliated with the original vendors, usually marked up at huge prices.
To catch a hacker
Security experts contend the problem isn't going away.
"Hackers by definition are early adopters and innovators," said Rob Rachwald, director of security strategy for Imperva, a data security company. "Businesses will build their wall 10 feet high, and the hacker will build a ladder 11 feet higher."
But security experts say prosecuting hackers is difficult when their computer networks are spread out across the country or they partner with programmers who reside internationally. To complicate matters, each state also has its own laws against ticket reselling.
In New York, it's legal to buy from online secondary sellers.
In one high-profile case, three operators of a Nevada company called Wiseguys Tickets pleaded guilty last year after bypassing the security measures of various ticket-selling websites, making more than $25 million from 2002 to 2009. For consumers, such advanced hacking leaves them the choice of walking off empty-handed or forking over more money.
The first day of Madonna's Yankee Stadium show sold out in 20 minutes, but desperate fans can still buy grandstand tickets at double their face value on secondary broker sites.
Legitimate sites, meanwhile, use online tools to thwart sophisticated automated programs or "bots" -- but with limited success. For instance, Ticketmaster requires users to retype a set of distorted random letters to prove they're not a bot.
Hackers, however, are still breaching many security measures. Web applications in general are checked for vulnerability 18 times per hour, said Noa Bar-Yosef, a senior security strategist at Imperva.
Even so, "how can a consumer fight against an automated script?" she asked.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) said he plans to reintroduce legislation that would ban secondary brokers from scoring tickets within the first 24 hours they go live.
With the online resale market expected to grow to $4.5 billion this year, Pascrell said, "secondary ticketing should absolutely be subject to accountability and oversight by the government to protect consumers."
One potential way to make hackers powerless is through paperless ticketing, in which consumers present their credit card and ID to gain entrance to an event.
A bill signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year requires that any paperless tickets sold for events in New York must be transferable, meaning people can give them to their friends or pass them to their parents or children. That arrangement is criticized by primary ticket sellers, who say restricting paperless ticketing that way still allows scalpers to thrive.
In response, primary seller Veritix now uses a system that allows ticket buyers to go online and transfer tickets to other people with permission from the venue, said company president Jeff Kline.
Still, hackers are keeping his company on guard: "Any time we think we're two steps ahead, they're already another step in front," Kline said.
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Ways to outwit online scalpers
•Go old school: Visit the venue’s box office or by calling a ticket broker immediately when tickets go on sale -- and to maximize your chances, also go online.
•Every minute counts. Call up the online ticket seller to see what time their clocks are set at, and then synchronize your computer’s clock so you can begin buying immediately when tickets are released.
•If you do use an online site, set up an account with all your personal and billing information already stored so you can buy tickets faster.