You paid how much? How ticket resellers rip off the fans

The recent case of a mother and her autistic son inadvertently buying fake tickets to see Elton John in Adelaide, a gig where 200 hundred people were turned away for having invalid passes, has once again drawn attention to the risks involved in the secondary ticketing or ticket resale market. And with the peak touring, festival and sports season upon us, there's a good chance many more fans are likely to find themselves out of pocket and out of luck if they're not alert.

So what exactly can go wrong when you're trying to buy tickets to a sold-out gig? What is legal in ticket on-selling and what is not? And what can you do to avoid getting ripped off?

Tickets for Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road tour have been in high demand – with forgers and customers alike.Credit:Julian Smith

What is the secondary ticketing market?

When tickets for an event go on sale, they are offered via the primary market, where the promoter makes them available to the public via an authorised ticketing outlet such as Ticketek or Ticketmaster.

If an event is in hot demand, tickets may sell out within hours, sometimes even within minutes (as happened with Splendour in the Grass and the A-League Grand Final in 2018, and Lizzo in November this year). As a result, many desperate fans miss out, and that's where the secondary market comes into play, with tickets popping up – sometimes almost immediately – on big platforms such as Ticketek Marketplace, Ticketmaster Resale (owned, like Ticketmaster, by promoter and venue manager Live Nation) or Viagogo (based in Switzerland, with no apparent physical presence in Australia).

There are also new operators springing up all the time, including Twickets, Ticket Fairy, Ticketswap and Australian start-ups Tixel and Ticketblaster. Some of these promise zero mark-up (other than transaction fees) or a mark-up capped at 10 to 20 per cent on top of the original price.

Are these operators legitimate?

There are lots of reasons to question the secondary market as a whole but most players technically operate within the bounds of the law. All the same, following the Elton John fiasco, South Australia's Commissioner for Consumer Affairs, Dini Soulio, offered some bald advice to consumers: "Don't use Viagogo."

In December, Dark Mofo issued a statement warning customers off secondary sites after tickets for a Bon Iver show began appearing at a 257 per cent mark-up – before they had even been issued to the original purchasers.

"We strongly advise our audience not to buy tickets from Viagogo or any other third party," Leigh Carmichael, creative director of the Tasmanian festival, says. "If you purchase tickets from a third party like Viagogo, Gumtree or eBay, we cannot guarantee that they will be valid."

In Victoria, the state government has moved to classify many sought-after gigs, including the Comedy Festival, as "major events" with a 10 per cent cap on the resale mark-up and hefty fines for breaches. But that didn’t stop Viagogo recently listing tickets to Wil Anderson and other performers at next year's festival at more than twice their face value (the company withdrew the tickets from sale after government ticket officers made enquiries). In New South Wales, it is illegal to resell tickets to many (though not all) events for more than 10 per cent above the original price, plus transaction costs. In Queensland, the same 10 per cent cap applies to events at major venues.

In each case, if a ticket is sold above the 10 per cent resale cap, the event organiser may cancel the ticket, and refuse entry to the person who holds it.

Tickets to Lizzo's January 2020 shows sold out in minutes.Credit:Owen Sweeney

So, what are the issues?

In a couple of words: fakes and gouging.

Scanning and Photoshop make it easy for scammers to create fake tickets; e-tickets are easy to duplicate and on-sell, with the risk that multiple purchasers might turn up to the venue with the "same" ticket. Some venue operators and promoters require proof of identity on presentation of a ticket. All of these can render a ticket bought on the secondary market invalid.

If you do end up with dodgy tickets bought on a resale site, that site is not legally responsible because they did not issue them, they merely brokered the transaction between seller and purchaser. The site may offer some sort of guarantee that gives you a chance of a refund or a replacement ticket in the event of being sold a forgery, but neither is likely to get you into the venue when it matters most.

Gouging, meanwhile, has two aspects: mark-up and transaction fees.

Take the case of a ticket to see the Pixies at the Palais in St Kilda in March 2020. When tickets went on sale in August 2019, a seat in the stalls cost $122.18 plus booking and handling fees. By December, with the two shows sold out, the same tickets were available on Viagogo for $248 apiece, a mark-up of more than 100 per cent. But the GST and booking fee was $79 per ticket, with another $2 for handling, taking the total price to $329 per ticket, a mark-up of more than $200.

It's called drip pricing, and while it's not illegal it's not super ethical either. At least Viagogo has now begun to display the all-in ticket price upfront (until recently, it hid it until you were at the checkout). The company claims it is "listening to consumers", but industry body Live Performance Australia says it is only doing what it is required to do in response to findings in Australia and other jurisdictions that the company was guilty of deliberately misleading customers. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in April found that Viagogo had engaged in misleading conduct in May and June 2017 by allowing the perception that it was an official seller of tickets rather than a reseller marketplace.

"Viagogo's claims misled consumers into buying tickets by including claims like 'less than 1 per cent tickets remaining' to create a false sense of urgency," ACCC chair Rod Sims said in April.

It's worth noting too that all tickets for the Pixies show in 2020 were issued electronically, which Live Nation, which is both tour promoter and owner of the Palais, claims reduces the chance of forgery. The company also says that tickets purchased for the gig "via on seller sites such as Viagogo, The Ticket Merchant, Ticketblaster, Queen of Tickets, eBay or Gumtree will not gain entry into the event".

No pressure! Buying tickets to a sold-out Pixies show looks like this … 

The clock ticks on online ticketing service.

But it's a free market, right?

Sure, no one is forcing anyone to buy hyper-inflated, fee-saddled, possibly fake tickets. But there are forces at play that make the decision to do so a little less than a matter of free choice.

First is FOMO (fear of missing out). This is already in play by the time you start looking for tickets on a secondary site – you're only there because you already think you've missed out, right? – but some sites are expert at dialling it up.

"Only 2 per cent of tickets in the venue currently available" reads a typical Viagogo message; only the vigilant will notice the words "on our site". The clock immediately starts ticking, along with the warning that if you don't purchase in time "prices may rise or these tickets may no longer be available". Next you'll be told that "two people viewed these tickets in the past hour". All of which is designed to heighten the sense that if you don't buy them pronto someone else will.

But the scarcity of tickets is itself contrived from the outset. In truth, the initial public release may account for less than half the seats in the venue, because the rest have gone via presale, loyalty programs, and promoter mailing lists. And when they do go on sale, scalpers (or "brokers") and their automated ticket-buying bots are busy snapping up as many as they can. You and your index finger barely stand a chance.

As if the system weren't rigged enough, Billboard recently confirmed what many people have long suspected: the promoters sometimes funnel a big chunk of tickets straight to the secondary market.

In July 2019, the music trade publication reported a leaked telephone conversation that revealed Live Nation had helped Metallica direct 88,000 tickets to resellers in 2017, bypassing the primary market and ensuring the band got the bulk of the proceeds of any mark-up. The company had reportedly also helped several other major acts do the same.

Though no such operation has ever been proved in Australia, a 2012 British TV investigation and 2016 reports from Italy found that Live Nation had funnelled tickets direct to Viagogo.

The Pixies: Paz Lenchantin, David Lovering, Black Francis, Joey Santiago.

So, what should we do?

First and foremost, be careful when purchasing tickets online. Take note of whether or not the top results in your search for tickets are paid-for ads; while Google briefly blocked Viagogo from buying the top spot, it has recently relented.

Always look for a primary seller option before moving to the secondary market; just because tickets are on a secondary site it doesn't mean they're not still available on the primary site too.

And be sceptical about how fast those tickets are selling – "only two left on this site" does not necessarily mean there are only two tickets left in the entire venue.

Favour resellers that cap the mark-up on secondary tickets or demand they be resold with no mark-up at all. Look for sites that declare fees up front rather than at the checkout. Go for resellers that have partnered with promoters and/or venues and offer a ticket reissuing service – this will minimise the chance of your ticket being a duplicate or fake, and gives you solid protection if something does go wrong.

What is the bottom line?

Your best bet for securing legitimate tickets at face value is to pre-register with promoters, ticketers and venues, to utilise loyalty incentive schemes (through banks and airlines and the like) and to register as a "verified fan" where this is an option.

If you must buy on the secondary market, look for a broker that promises to destroy the original ticket and reissue it with fresh bar codes in your name, and whose guarantee is not riddled with exceptions.

Above all, read the fine print and be alert.

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