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Ticket touting is ruining live music for genuine fans

As events begin to reschedule dates for 2021, and with some selling out months in advance, the practise of ticket touting is once again an issue for the dance music industry — this summer, tickets are on sale for more than 10 times their original price on reselling sites like Viagogo. How can promoters, venues and artists create meaningful change on this issue? And what have governments and trade bodies done to date to tackle criminality and bad practise on the major secondary ticketing sites? DJ Mag investigates

Electronic music artists, venues and promoters are failing to do enough to protect fans from online touts, who are selling tickets for more than 10 times face value as the industry emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, according to experts that identify attacks on ticketing systems. Earlier this summer, UK festivals and large electronic music events quickly sold out when tickets were released, ahead of the expected easing of the Covid-19 restrictions that have limited gatherings since March 2020.

On websites like Viagogo, four-day tickets to attend the Creamfields festival in Cheshire are on sale for as much as £1,288 — more than three times the original price. Tickets for The Warehouse Project’s Welcome To The Warehouse – Part 1, which features Carl Cox, Peggy Gou, Modeselektor, Honey Dijon and Skream are on sale for £445 each — more than 10 times their original price. Tickets to see Adam Beyer and Kevin Saunderson at Printworks in October are online with a price tag of £128 per ticket, more than four times the original price, and tickets to see Carl Cox at Brighton Beach were being sold for almost 10 times their original price, listed at £544 on Viagogo before the event. (All prices are correct as of 22nd June.)

“Generally, these aren’t just fans selling tickets to gigs that they can no longer go to,” says Reg Walker, a consultant that specialises in the forensic analysis of ticket sales. He’s given evidence about ticket sales to the government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and is regularly consulted by National Trading Standards about issues related to ticket reselling. “These platforms are exclusively tout driven,” he says. “The number of genuine consumers actually listing tickets is minimal to none.”

Research published by the Competition and Markets Authority last year, ahead of the $4bn merger of Viagogo and its US-focused rival StubHub, found that 10% of resellers account for between 80% and 100% of tickets advertised on StubHub, and more than 70% on Viagogo.

“We have fans turning up to Printworks and Drumsheds with documents that they have printed out. Sometimes they have paid £300, and what they’ve got isn’t even close to looking like a ticket. It’s a real problem.” — Tim Holmes, head of business operations at ticketing company Kaboodle

Ticket touting techniques

While selling tickets for higher prices is not a crime in itself, Walker believes that many of the practises adopted by ticket touts using these sites break laws in the UK. These include the 2006 Fraud Act, money laundering regulations, the 2018 Breaching of Limits on Ticket Sales Regulations and the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act.  “The tickets being sold on Viagogo are often acquired unlawfully through fraud,” Walker claims. “This fraud reduces the number of tickets that are available at face value to genuine members of the public.”

Walker notes some of the common techniques used by touts to acquire tickets, such as harnessing specialist software to avoid online queuing systems and taking on multiple identities to purchase tickets. This allows touts to bypass systems designed to limit the number of tickets that are acquired by a single buyer, intended to ensure that real fans get the tickets.

“The software they use is quite sophisticated,” says Walker. “They’ll use credit cards, names and addresses that they have no right to, along with various proxy IP addresses that mask their true location. These bad actors can act extremely swiftly; we know that they have coders working with them in real time monitoring bot activity.”

Many primary ticket sellers have strict terms and conditions that state clearly that their websites are for consumers, not for the use of businesses that want to resell tickets. “The underlying offence is quite simple,” Walker says. “It is fraudulently passing yourself off as multiple people in order to obtain tickets.”

Facebook and ticket fraud

On top of the problem of ticket touts using resale sites, the sale of fake tickets through social media is becoming a growing issue. Tim Holmes is head of business operations at ticketing company Kaboodle. The platform controls the ticket sales for the London venues Printworks and The Drumsheds, as well as several festivals. Holmes believes that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of fake tickets being sold to fans over platforms like Facebook.

“We have fans turning up to Printworks and Drumsheds with documents that they have printed out, and they think they are tickets — but, in reality, they don’t look anything like real tickets,” he says. “Sometimes they have paid £300, and what they’ve got isn’t even close to looking like a ticket. It’s a real problem. It’s very difficult for people to track down who has sold the fake ticket, as they’re usually using a completely fabricated Facebook profile to hide their true identity.”

Facebook declined to comment when it was contacted by DJ Mag about this issue.

On 14th June, Action Fraud, the national fraud reporting service run by City Of London police, issued a warning about ticket fraud: almost £1m has been lost to ticket fraud so far this year, while 1,085 reports of ticket fraud had been made in the first half of the year; equating to an average loss of £850 per victim.

“Many festivals and events scheduled to go ahead as coronavirus-related restrictions ease have already sold out — something criminals are more than happy to take advantage of,” says Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud. The organisation has advised people to only buy tickets directly from a venue, an official promoter or agent, or a well-known and reputable ticket site. “Don’t be duped by offers on secondary ticketing websites or social media, as this is often where criminals will advertise fake tickets to popular and sold-out events,” she says.

Speculative ticketing

Another problem that has plagued secondary sales sites is speculative ticketing, according to Walker. This is an illegal practise where touts advertise tickets for sale before they’ve gained possession of the tickets. Speculative ticketing can be attractive to touts, as it removes the risk of being left with unsold tickets if they can’t find buyers. However, it can create problems for consumers if the event sells out — in the past, there have been major convictions in the UK after ticket touts have failed to deliver to their customers.

One such conviction was of Terence Shepherd, the director of online ticketing operation Xclusive. Xclusive “sold” but failed to supply thousands of tickets worth millions of pounds, for events including the Beijing Olympics and music festivals during the summer of 2008. The company then collapsed, leaving more than 10,000 people without tickets. In July 2011, Shepherd was sentenced to eight years for fraudulent trading, money laundering and acting as a company director while disqualified.

Despite past, high-profile prosecutions, the practise is thriving online. Walker’s consultancy, Iridium Security, has estimated that there are currently between two and four million pounds in non-existent tickets being advertised on major resale platforms. Earlier this year, the consultancy had identified several instances where tickets advertised on Viagogo had not yet been released by primary retailers.

After identifying the potential instances of speculative ticketing, Walker carried out test purchases, placing orders for tickets on Viagogo. Shortly after the orders were placed on Viagogo, event organisers received orders for the same quantities in his name. According to Walker, this indicates that the seller was engaged in speculative ticketing. Viagogo has said publicly that it does not condone speculative ticketing and takes action to prevent fraudulent activity on its site. As part of a 2018 CMA-secured court order against Viagogo, the company was forced to ask touts to tick a box confirming they have tickets they advertise.

Though Viagogo now requires sellers to declare that they own tickets they are advertising for sale, critics of the company and other secondary retail sites claim that they still encourage fraudulent behaviour and law-breaking by touts.

“The most successful reselling sites have got the biggest touts working for them — and very often, these are touts that are using unethical and illegal practises,” says Adam Webb, a campaign manager at FanFair Alliance, a group that campaigns against online ticket touting.“The big reselling platforms are battling to attract the biggest touts that can sell the most tickets. They are the star players on your team — and the best way to attract them is by making sales easy, and not asking them too many difficult questions about where all the tickets are coming from.”

Large-scale scalping

Most people underestimate the scale of operations and the amount of money that is made by touts, according to Adam Webb. “The rip-off of UK ticket-buyers is astonishing,” he says. “Over the last six years, there have been tickets worth hundreds of millions of pounds mis-sold to people. It’s crazy.”

In February last year, Webb was a key witness in the prosecution of Peter Hunter and David Smith. They traded as Ticket Wiz and BZZ, and were found guilty of fraudulent trading in relation to the resale of £11m worth of tickets. Hunter was sentenced to four years in prison, while Smith was sentenced to 30 months. The judge ruled that Hunter and Smith ran their fraudulent operation from May 2010 to December 2017, making a net profit of £3.5m in just the latter two years that they were in business.

Lawyers acting for National Trading Standards argued in November 2019 that the defendants tried to “milk profit” from genuine fans by using scalper bots, as well as a specialist browser called Insomniac, that allowed them to masquerade as multiple consumers. The company’s tactics circumvented primary platforms’ terms and conditions and their automated systems to block multiple purchases, which saw them purchase more than 750 Ed Sheeran tickets in 2017. The touts spent more than £4m on primary ticket sites between June 2015 and December 2017, and sold them on resale sites such as GetMeIn and Seatwave, which have since been shut down, as well as StubHub and Viagogo for £10.8m.

Ticket tout legislation

In the UK, legislation has been brought in and platforms like Viagogo have been targeted by regulators, to try and put a stop to unethical and fraudulent practises. New rules in the Consumer Rights Act 2015 required anyone reselling tickets through a secondary market website to provide details of the block, row and seat number of the ticket, as well as the face value price and information about any restrictions. It was hoped these rules would cut down on tout activity, as disclosing the seat number means that promoters and venues can check who bought a ticket that is now being sold on for profit.

In July 2018, the ‘Breaching of Limits on Ticket Sales Regulations’ came into force. This banned touts from using automated software, often called bots, to buy more tickets for events than they are allowed — and making them liable for a potentially unlimited fine. These changes to the law have helped to curtail tout activity in the UK to some degree, meaning that they don’t have the same control of the ticket markets as in the US or some European countries, according to experts. However, critics say that many of the regulations that have been introduced to try and restrict touting are difficult to enforce by authorities, are not adequately policed by online platforms, and are frequently ignored by resellers.

In November 2017, the Competition and Markets Authority stepped up its crackdown on resale sites by beginning an enforcement action against four of the biggest secondary ticketing websites: Seatwave, Viagogo, Get Me In and StubHub. This led to three of the sites offering formal commitments to overhaul the way they did business, but Viagogo ignored the CMA’s efforts to initiate reforms.

In August 2018, the CMA initiated court proceedings against Viagogo, and in November the same year, it secured a court order against the company. In September 2019, the site was notified that the CMA was proceeding with a contempt of court action against it. In 2020, Viagogo was ordered to pay a $7m penalty for “industrial scale” misrepresentations, after the Federal Court of Australia ruled that Viagogo had contravened the Australian Consumer Law.

“Things are now a lot better in the UK than they were back in 2016 or 2017,” says Webb. “Back then you had Ticketmaster, the biggest primary ticket seller, also having its own secondary sites, which was extremely problematic. StubHub and Viagogo were also refusing to comply with legislation and it was incredibly difficult to get any hard data in terms of how many tickets were on those sites, and who was selling them. Now, because of some of the reforms in the UK market, you can get a better picture about who’s selling tickets and how many they are selling.”

“Touting is a real blight on the music scene. Above all else, we want to see tickets in the hands of genuine fans” — Bradley Thompson, Managing Director of Printworks operator Broadwick Live

Hard to stop

The Brighton-based venue Concorde2 says that, even with the legal action that has been taken in recent years, ticket touts remain hard to combat. It says that, as restrictions are lifted, touts are trying to exploit the desire of ravers who want to attend events and return to something that resembles normality.

“In the digital world, ticket touts can operate under relative invisibility, and consumer rights legislation can be incredibly difficult to enforce,” the venue tells DJ Mag. “We fully support the recent lobbying by FanFair Alliance to highlight the need for urgent action from the government in order to make UK Consumer Law enforceable in the digital age.”

Bradley Thompson, the managing director of Printworks operator Broadwick Live, agrees that more needs to be done to empower companies that want to take action against touts. “Demand for tickets has been incredibly high with many shows selling out within hours,” he says. “Sadly, it seems that touts are taking advantage of this higher demand. Despite having numerous measures in place to combat touting, touts employ increasingly sophisticated methods to cheat the systems. This, combined with the lack of regulation for secondary ticketing platforms like Viagogo and StubHub, makes it very challenging to overcome completely. We would really like to see greater regulation for secondary ticketing platforms, as well as support from authorities to help prevent touting around venues. Touting is a real blight on the music scene. Above all else, we want to see tickets in the hands of genuine fans.”

Venues like Printworks and Concorde2 are taking a range of measures to try and stop touts, including the use of specialist software and putting customer names on the tickets they sell. Concorde2 recommends that promoters use the venue’s preferred ticketing agents that have antibot technology in place for bookings. “If a ticket listed by a tout can be identified by the reference number, then that ticket will be cancelled and the tout blocked from making future purchases,” a spokesperson for the company says. In an effort to clamp down on ticket touting, Kaboodle creates bespoke ticket designs for the events at Printworks and Drumsheds and restricts the amount of time between when it dispatches tickets and when the event starts. It says this makes it harder for touts to recreate or list actual tickets on secondary sites.

Kaboodle also has an official resale platform, which allows ticket holders who can’t attend to list tickets and sell them at face value. Ticket sellers also limit the number of tickets people can buy in a single purchase, and use queue technology which automatically softblocks IP addresses that are either displaying or known for bot-style behaviour. “For events where we expect touting is likely to be a big problem, we like to put customer names on the tickets,” says Kaboodle’s Tim Holmes. “This means that tickets can’t change hands as easily, and can even be cancelled if they are seen being resold at high prices by a tout on secondary sites.”

However, according to Kaboodle, putting names on tickets isn’t always the right course of action; it makes it harder for people to book tickets for large groups and distribute them easily among their friends. “Especially when it comes to dance music: we know that people are going to come in big groups, and when they book, they aren’t necessarily going to know who is coming,” says Holmes.

Kaboodle believes emerging technological solutions like specialist digital wallet apps, which allow you to keep digital event tickets on your phone and swap with other people, could help to solve some of the existing problems.

Avoiding enforcement

Viagogo remains challenging to regulate for a variety of reasons, according to experts. In 2012, the company liquidated its assets and moved its operations to Switzerland with offices in Zurich and, last year, it moved its servers to the US, meaning that anyone trying to regulate the company had to deal with authorities in multiple jurisdictions.

There is also a conflict of interest between Google and ticket resale websites, according to Webb. Often, resale sites like Viagogo will appear above official primary ticket sellers on Google searches because they pay more for Google advertising.

“Because these sites appear at the top of the Google search, often people think they are an official primary ticket seller,” says Webb. “I believe in many cases people who are paying over the odds for tickets don’t even realise they are buying from a reselling site.”

Google has been urged to stop accepting money from Viagogo by various organisations and individuals, including the Football Association, several British MPs and the trade body UK Music. In 2019, the number of fans using Viagogo plummeted after Google suspended the secondary ticketing company from its paid-for search results for breaching its advertising policy — but the ban only lasted for four months. “Viagogo spends so much with Google, that it is in its interest to keep the ticketing website as a customer despite its dubious business practises,” says Webb.

Company reforms

While critics say that Viagogo still needs to put reforms in place in order to protect consumers, the company believes that it has already done enough. In a statement to DJ Mag, it says: “Viagogo’s platform is successfully used by thousands of private sellers every day and we are committed to ensuring the highest levels of customer service and strongest consumer protections of anyone operating in the resale industry. As a platform, we exist to provide flexibility for sellers and buyers, and strongly refute any claims that our platform is tout-driven.

“Where we are provided proof of any abuse of our system we will always investigate and take swift measures to address and stamp out further activity. If Reg Walker believes there to be fraud on Viagogo’s platform, then he should present evidence of this and allow us to investigate. In addition, the price of tickets is set by sellers, those which are listed at unreasonable prices get the most media attention but rarely, if ever, sell.

“Following the CMA court order in 2018, we made close to a thousand changes to our website and processes and we continue to comply with this order. It is our goal to work closely with regulators in all the markets we operate in. Earlier this year, an Australian court delayed a request for a AUD $7million penalty payment pending an appeal by Viagogo. Since the allegations were initially raised in 2017, we have overhauled our platform — a process that included consultation with consumer protection regulators in a number of countries.”

StubHub did not respond to DJ Mag’s request to comment on the issue of ticket touts using its platform.

Actions and impacts

The Labour MP Sharon Hodgson is co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ticket Abuse, and has been at the epicentre of efforts to implement reforms in the secondary ticket market for almost a decade. She tells DJ Mag that Google’s promotion of ticket resale sites remains problematic, and called for more action to be taken by the government.

“While we have had some successes over the last few years, genuine fans are still at risk of being ripped off, as much of the key problems — speculative selling, Google ads and inflated prices on the secondary ticket market — still very much exist,” she says. “The APPG will continue to work on a cross-party basis to protect genuine fans and the entertainment industry through legislation, where possible, and campaign for more action to be taken by the government to enforce existing legislation which should be protecting consumers.”

“Touting can do a huge amount of damage to the music industry, diverting funds from the artists, promoters and venues working hard to ensure live music stays alive” — Concorde2

While campaigners are pressing for more action from the government and regulators to crack down on tout activity, experts say that simple actions taken by artists and promoters can help to protect fans from being exploited. “Dance music artists and promoters can do a lot more to stop tickets from haemorrhaging onto the secondary market,” says Webb. “Putting in terms and conditions and requiring photo ID can make a big difference to how easy it is to sell tickets for profit at scale.”

One notable example of an artist that has tried to prevent tickets from his events being resold for profit is Four Tet, who worked with Ticketmaster to launch anti-tout digital tickets in 2018. “Artists and promoters can’t just wait for the government to take action and say that touting has nothing to do with them,” says Webb. “There are plenty of steps that can be taken to reduce tout activity and put pressure on those who are profiting from exploiting fans. If you are an artist or promoter, you need to make it abundantly clear on your website and in your terms and conditions that the tickets you are selling are for fans only — and if they are bought by a trader, or a business looking to sell these for profit, the tickets will be cancelled.”

If electronic music artists and promoters don’t take more action, experts fear that the consequences for the broader scene in the UK could be severe. “Touting can do a huge amount of damage to the music industry, diverting funds from the artists, promoters and venues working hard to ensure live music stays alive,” says a spokesperson for Concorde2. “Most importantly, the live music industry should be accessible to all, but touts driving up prices and selling fraudulent tickets means many do not get the experience they deserve.”

Walker agrees that the long-term impact of unrestricted ticket touting should not be underestimated. “Ticket touting can rip the heart out of a scene,” he says. “It means that normal people who are genuine fans can’t attend events. A lot of the hardcore fans who attend these events are some of the lowest paid.

“If you allow unfettered touting activity to take place, you are effectively forcing those people to either go into debt to see their favourite artists, or they don’t get to see them at all,” he says. “At the same time, casual, more affluent fans who don’t care what they pay have easy access to tickets. It’s the kind of thing that can really destroy a music scene.”

While it is unlikely that effective action can be taken to reverse the damage done by touts to this summer’s events that have already sold out, it’s likely that improved regulations and enforcement will be essential to ensure the long-term health of the UK electronic music scene.

Want more? Read our feature on how clubs and promoters are approaching a safe return to the dancefloor

Wil Crisp is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @bilgribs