We’ve all been there – you’ve called in sick for work, you’re waiting patiently for the clock to tick over, you’ve multiple computers and your phone open and prepped ready to pounce, all in an effort to nab tickets to see your favourite band’s first trip to Australia in an age. But it seems that no sooner than ticket sales have opened, they have sold out.
There’s a number of factors that can contribute to lightning fast sell-outs – popularity, small capacities, pre-sales – but there’s on particularly low method that some of the world’s biggest ticketing giants are once again taking steps to combat: bots.
Bots are essentially the key arsenal in a ticket scalper’s repertoire. Either custom programmed by a scalper themselves, or widely (and cheaply) available as pre-programmed software online, bots are designed to flood a particular online sale with request for tickets in order to increase the odds of scoring a purchase as well as increasing the ‘per person’ limit of ticket sales.
They’ve long been the scourge of ticket agents and a major frustration for fans looking to get tickets legitimately, but according to a report from The New York Times, Ticketmaster and its parent company, Live Nation, are making a push to improve the buying experience by directly combating the use of bots.
Last month, Ticketmaster accused 21 people in a federal lawsuit of fraud, copyright infringement, and other offenses, in using ticketing bots to search and buy-up millions of tickets over a period of two years. “We’re not trying to stop anybody from buying tickets – we’re just trying to make sure that a fan can buy the tickets.” – John Carnahan, Ticketmaster
Another recent lawsuit accused a group of scalpers of using ticket-buying drones to grab up to 200,000 tickets a day. Live Nation won’t reveal how many of the 148 million annual ticket sales are snaffled up by bot users, generally because they may not accurately know, but blame them for harming the economic viability of the concert business.
Combating bots is something that’s easier said than done however, because despite Ticketmaster reporting the vast majority of concert tickets going to bot users, more than 60% in some instances, those identified are merely “speedbumped” – slowed down – which in effect boots them to the back of the line but not from the system.
Measures that simply delay the bots to allow a regular ticket buyer through. “We’re not trying to stop anybody from buying tickets,” says John Carnahan, an online fraud specialist hired by Ticketmaster in late 2011, “we’re just trying to make sure that a fan can buy the tickets.”
Carnahan, who helped Yahoo combat online advertising fraud, has been leading the anti-bot movement at the Live Nation owned company. His job is to find ways to monitor behaviour of ticket buyers visiting Ticketmaster’s website and determine if they’re a legitimate customer or one of the mechanised scalping bots.
How? mainly through a process of observation, a real person may click a series of links at different points on a screen at the point of purchase, but bots by contrast rapidly click on precisely the same point each time.
At Ticketmaster’s Los Angeles office, as The New York Times write, “a screen on Mr. Carnahan’s desk [details] incoming traffic, with a rainbow of colours at the bottom and splotches of red on top representing suspicious activity,” with one instance showing that the “red visitors were making 600 times more ticket requests than those the system identified as being most likely human.”
Captcha technology (those squiggly lines of random text and made-up words you must pass) was a security measure originally designed to weed out ticket bot systems, and this past January, Ticketmaster upgraded its Captcha systems and is looking to eliminate the tests altogether with new tech introduced for its mobile app.
But as Michael Rapino, Live Nation’s Chief Executive laments, “as with hackers, you can solve it today, and they’re rewriting code tomorrow- thus the arms race.” It certainly seems like a losing battle when easily accessible sites, like Death By Captcha, offer affordable package rates to dupe the security tests. Offering 5,000 Captchas for just $US 6.95
To compound the problem, ticketing bots often use outsourcing to countries outside of US jurisdiction, like Russia, India, and the Philippines – that use labour workers to manually type in the text required by Captcha tests once the initial requests by bots flood a particular concert sale, doubly making some bot systems harder to detect. “As with hackers, you can solve it today, and they’re rewriting code tomorrow- thus the arms race.” – Michael Rapino, Live Nation
Bots aren’t technically illegal, and even harder to convict from foreign waters, but are banned in a number of American states. However many legal attacks on scalpers using the frowned upon software have largely fallen flat, many legal cases determining that abusers had merely violated the terms and conditions of Ticketmaster’s service and website, rather than committing an actual crime.
As was the case in a 2010 trial, as The New York Times points out, where four members of company Wiseguy Tickets were charged with conspiracy and wire fraud for using bots, but got off light, sentenced to probation and community service. “They got a slap on the wrist… It wasn’t much of an actual deterrent.” Live Nation’s Michael Rapino remarked of the case.
Closer to home, online fraud and cases of ticket scalping have managed to catch a few in the act. The highest profile case being the 22-year-old NSW man who faced judges for the sale of fake Soundwave tickets. after he pocketed nearly $17,000 from unwary fans across at least 60 suspicious transactions.
While scams and frauds are prosecutable, much like the bot cases in the states however, the legal waters of ticket resales are still murky. There are resale laws that apply in Victoria and Queensland which threatens those wanting sell-on tickets at profit with criminal penalties. In Victoria, certain rules apply for sporting events, and specific events like the AFL Grand Final, while in Queensland, tickets cannot be onsold higher than 110% of the original price for any major sporting event – in both cases tickets can not be resold at profit to buyers in other states.
It’s certainly an issue that’s gaining attention, with Consumer Affairs Victoria issuing a public warning earlier in the year, while back in February, the NSW Government announced initial plans introduce new legislation to stop the resale of tickets at greatly inflated prices.
The legislation eyed looking at laws to enforce that tickets can only be forwarded on and sold at a cost within 10% of the original ticket price, NSW minister for Sport,s Graham Annesley saying“fans should be able to expect that resale takes place in a manner which does not expose the new purchaser to any undue risk of fraud.”
Organisers for the three-day winter music festival, Splendour In The Grass, took a far more direct approach to shady ticket sellers with its Official Resale facility. Splendour organisers issued a warning over the alarming amount of ticket scalpers appearing online, especially through auction site Gumtree, forcing their hand to scrap the reissue option for 2013 while emphasising the importance of buying directly and legitimately through festival channels.