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Good Seats, Bad Deals

Online ticket sites charge outrageous prices, mislead customers, and rarely offer refunds. So why is this legal?

Lynda LaPlante, 45, just wanted to do something nice for her boyfriend, Roland. So when she heard that singer John Mayer was performing at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts, she surfed the Internet hoping to buy a pair of tickets. A “Buy Tickets Now” Web link took LaPlante to TheSeats.com, where she nabbed two lawn seats at $60 each, plus an additional $15 for shipping and $18 in service fees. Total price: $153.

Too bad the tickets really cost $24.95 each. Unbeknownst to LaPlante, she had just made a way-overpriced, sorry-no-refunds deal on an Internet ticket site. There are two types of ticket sellers on the Web: the first, primary sellers, includes box offices and authorized companies such as Ticketmaster and Tickets.com. The next group is known as secondary sellers. These more risky dot-coms range from ticket brokers—companies that scoop up in-demand tickets and resell them for more than face value (using automated software and phone banks, resellers can snap up thousands of tickets within minutes of a sale)—to marketplace websites such as StubHub, RazorGator, eBay, and Craigslist, where individuals can sell tickets for any price, with almost zero guarantees for the buyer. The result: a Wild West ticket market that’s become anywhere from a $3 billion to $20 billion industry.

One of the scalper’s best weapons: deception. Thanks to the Internet, sellers can lure buyers to sites that look official but are actually havens for high-priced tickets. That’s how AARP The Magazine deputy editor Nancy Graham, 51, was duped. While searching the Internet for “Wolf Trap”—a performing arts center in Virginia—and “tickets,” she mistakenly ended up on GreatSeats.com and bought a pair of orchestra seats to a Doobie Brothers concert for $160 each. Face value: $40. “I feel like a fool,” she says.

Graham complained to Danny Matta of GreatSeats, an independent online ticket seller, suggesting he was ticket scalping. His response? “I do not control what people price their tickets at, nor do I control who buys them. Anyone is welcome to list tickets for sale on my site. Anyone is welcome to purchase. We definitely are legalized scalping.”

But Matta’s scalping-isn’t-illegal defense isn’t quite accurate. While no federal laws directly govern ticket resales, several states and a number of municipalities prohibit the reselling of tickets for more than the face price. Some states allow a small premium to be charged but usually no more than $3. And any offense is a misdemeanor.

Price, however, isn’t the only problem: all too often buyers of scalped tickets don’t get what they paid for. Arline Zatz, 69, forked over $200 for two $25 seats she bought while personally visiting a local broker. “I knew they were overpriced and I resented it, but I took them because they were supposedly in a superior location,” she says. Instead, her view was blocked by a large television camera. Adding to her irritation: “We saw plenty of empty seats.”

“Consumers get hurt. Arenas get hurt. Artists get hurt. The only one to benefit from scalping is the scalper.”

When Kyle Goodin, 56, could find only bleacher seating for a performance by her favorite singer, Michael McDonald (who was opening for Steely Dan), she tried TicketsNow, paying $90 each for four tickets. Within minutes she found better seats for a cheaper price and tried to cancel her purchase. Too bad, TicketsNow told her. Like most ticket sites, all sales are final. Adding insult to injury, the back of the tickets clearly stated they could not be resold for more than 45 percent of their $45 face value.

Some artists are fighting back. In 2006 rock star Tom Petty launched a new fan club to give faithful followers the first shot at the best seats for his summer tour. When ticket brokers and independent scalpers joined the club to buy and then resell premium seats for five times their retail value, Petty’s management and promoters had the last laugh. Ticketmaster, the official distributor for Petty’s tour, and the various arenas painstakingly matched seat locations listed for sale online with those purchased during the fan-club presale—and voided more than 1,400 tickets so they could be resold to true fans. Buyers had to show an ID to pick up their tickets on show night. Petty’s manager, Tony Dimitriades, calls it “a step in the right direction and a major strike on behalf of the good guys.”

Hockey champs the Carolina Hurricanes now post a legal agreement at its box offices reserving the right to void any or all tickets resold or offered for resale at a price above that allowed by North Carolina statutes. And they mean it. “If we find out you try and resell your ticket for more than $3 over face value, we reserve the right to invalidate the bar codes,” says William Traurig, director of legal affairs for the Hurricanes’ home arena, RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. “We warn consumers not to buy from scalpers.”

As for Lynda LaPlante, the Rhode Island woman who paid more than three times the face value for John Mayer tickets, she demanded a refund from TheSeats.com. Not surprisingly, the answer was an emphatic no. She asked her credit card company to stop payment, but the company refused. So she had to buy new tickets from an authorized retailer. “It made me furious that we were taken advantage of,” she says. She contacted the Rhode Island attorney general and the Better Business Bureau, to no avail.

Industry insiders share LaPlante’s fury. “It frustrates me when scalpers say they aren’t hurting anyone when clearly they are manipulating the supply,” says the Hurricanes’ Traurig. “Consumers get hurt. Arenas get hurt. Artists get hurt. The only one to benefit from scalping is the scalper.”

Laura Daily is a contributing editor for AARP The Magazine.

 

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