Verify: Are computer BOTS taking all the tickets?

The Verify team and 9Wants to Know set out to discover whether computer programs called BOTS steal almost every event ticket and what – if anything – is being done to stop them.

Author: Jeremy Jojola, Anna Staver
Published: 5:07 PM MDT May 24, 2017
Updated: 5:07 PM MDT May 24, 2017
VERIFY 5 Articles

VERIFY – YOU’VE GOT QUESTIONS, WE’LL FIND ANSWERS

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Verify: Are computer BOTS taking all the tickets?

VERIFY
Chapter 1

THE QUESTION

When tickets went on sale for Tom Petty’s May show at Red Rocks, Michelle Spann thought she was prepared.

The Denver resident and her boyfriend opened about a dozen web browsers on their laptops and phones.

Michelle Spann
Michelle Spann

“Within a minute all the tickets were gone,” Spann said. “And, of course, then they’re listed on StubHub. They’re listed everywhere with these scalpers for three times the amount of what the tickets were that we were trying to buy legitimately.”

It’s a familiar story to anyone who has tried to buy a concert ticket in the last decade. Tickets sell out in minutes and seem to appear almost instantaneously on secondary sales websites at inflated prices.

Spann assumes – as do most of the viewers who email 9NEWS about ticket scalping – that ticket brokers use computer programs called bots to scoop up all the tickets and push fans out in favor of their own profits.

The Verify team and 9Wants to Know set out to discover whether that’s true and what – if anything – is being done to stop them.

Chapter 2

WHAT WE FOUND

We talked to Ken Lowson, a notorious ticket scalper who ran a company called Wiseguy Tickets until it was raided by the FBI in 2010.

“I prefer the man who broke Ticketmaster,” Lowson said. “The world recognizes me as the biggest ticket scalper and the inventor of ticket bots."

Lowson’s on the other side now, protecting fans from bots.

A screen shot taken of tickets to the Hamilton muscial in Denver. Tickets for this event haven't been printed or gone on sale yet, according to the Denver Center for Preforming Arts.
A screen shot taken of tickets to the Hamilton muscial in Denver. Tickets for this event haven't been printed or gone on sale yet, according to the Denver Center for Preforming Arts.

But when he “broke Ticketmaster” Lowson programmed his bots to bypass Ticketmaster’s Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart or CAPTCHAs. Those fuzzy, distorted letter tests that are supposed to determine whether a user is human.

“They just didn’t use it right,” Lowson said.

Ticketmaster had a bank of 30,000 CAPTCHAs, and Lowson’s team solved every one of them. Then, the bots pulled the right answer from their own CAPTCHA bank and solve the test.

And they could do it before your brain registered what those fuzzy letters were.

“We measured in milliseconds,” Lowson said.

Wiseguys deployed hundreds of bots when tickets to major sporting events or concerts went on sale. They impersonated fans from all over the country and paid with dozens of different credit cards.

Once Lowson had the tickets, he sold them to ticket brokers. These are the secondary market websites you see that sometimes look identical to the official venue websites.

Lowson could program his bots to buy specific seats, which let him make lucrative deals with these brokers for the best seats in the house.

That’s one of the possible reasons why you see tickets for Hamilton on sale now even though the Denver Center for Performing Arts hasn’t printed a single ticket.

Chapter 3

WHAT IS DONE ABOUT BROKERS AND BOTS?

Congress passed the Better Online Ticket Sales Act, or BOTS Act, in December 2016. It outlawed the use of computer programs to circumvent the rules ticket sellers put in place.

But the Federal Trade Commission is still working on how to enforce it.

“This is a new law, and we’re trying to figure that out,” FTC attorney Melissa Dickey said. “We’re reaching out to industry to see if there are ways we can try to effectively enforce this law.”

U.S. Sen Chuck Schumer (D-New York) talks about potential federal prosecution and fines for companies that use ticket bots.
U.S. Sen Chuck Schumer (D-New York) talks about potential federal prosecution and fines for companies that use ticket bots.

Performers and politicians lauded its passage as an important step in the right direction. Especially, since “there’s a lot more ticket bots out there then there were before,” Dickey said.

But if Colorado serves as an example of enforcement, the FTC won’t prosecute anyone.

The Centennial State passed a similar law banning bots in 2008 after the state’s Attorney General’s Office received a tip brokers were planning to use bots to buy Rockies World Series tickets.

“As a result of not seeing legislation or not seeing a statute on our books that thought would address this, we started work on what’s become Senate Bill 77,” Deputy Attorney General Jan Zavislan told a House committee March 6, 2008.

Zavislan headed the office’s consumer protection division at the time.

Supporters of the bill assured lawmakers this could put a significant dent in the ticket bot business.

After talking to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and the Denver District Attorney, 9NEWS found out that hasn’t happened.

Neither office has prosecuted a single person or business for using a bot since the bill became law.

“Under our statute we can’t even initiate an investigation unless we have reasonable cause to believe that there’s been a violation of the law,” Deputy Attorney General Alissa Gardenswartz said.

The only way Gardenswartz, who is the new head of the AG’s consumer protection office, has probable cause is if venues like Red Rocks and DCPA turn over their data.

“We are not in the best position to know why it is that a consumer or even that person in our office hasn’t been able to get a ticket,” Gardenswartz said. “It could be because of ticket bots, but again, we don’t know that.”

Venues like DCPA and Red Rocks say they know when they have a bot in their system.

“I’m not going to go into the details because I don’t want to tip anyone off as to how we do things, but we do have processes and resources that we use as soon as we see certain behavior happening,” Yovani Pina, associate vice president of technology at DCPA, said.

Gardenswartz assumes Pina’s efforts are working.

“We try to stay one step ahead of them, but again, there’s always something new,” Pina said. “Some new technology we may not have access to or that somebody else has access to.”

That information isn’t getting passed along.

“We have not been hearing from event venues or consumers,” Gardenswartz said.

Red Rocks spokesman Brian Kitts said he hasn’t heard from the AG’s Office either.

No one has ever come to the venue and said he or she wanted its help prosecuting brokers who use bots.

Chapter 4

IT'S NOT JUST THE BOTS

If someone from the AG’s Office had talked to Kitts, he or she would have learned that bots aren’t the only issue plaguing ticket sellers.

“What’s frustrating for Red Rocks or any other venue is that there really aren’t laws in place that protects us as venues from copycats,” Kitts said. “We can protect copyrights, but you can make your website look a lot like a Red Rocks website. Sometimes fans don’t know the difference.”

That’s what happened to Jason Hutchinson.

He bought a ticket to see Chris Rock at the Bellco Theater in March from a third-party website.

The ticket scanned the night of the show, but he realized something was wrong shortly after he took his seat. Another guy showed up with a ticket for that exact seat. Bellco employees determined that Hutchinson had an unauthorized copy or a fake ticket.

Jason Hutchinson's American Express email saying the company couldn't refund his money for a fake ticket.
Jason Hutchinson's American Express email saying the company couldn't refund his money for a fake ticket.

The reseller, Online City Tickets, states in its user agreement that it buyers should beware of fake tickets.

So, Hutchinson tried to get a refund through his credit card company.

“American Express is unable to do anything as this user agreement absolves them of liability,” Hutchinson said. “This is just one example of how the American public gets legally screwed by fraudsters, and no one does anything about it.”

Another frustration is the anonymity of online waiting rooms.

If you bought a concert ticket in the 1980s, chances are you spent hours or maybe even days waiting in line outside a ticket office.

Today you don’t see that long line, but you are “very much” in line with thousands of people, Kitts said.

For example, the Tom Petty show Spann couldn’t get tickets to had 27,000 people in the waiting room from all over the globe. Red Rocks can only seat 9,000 people.

"The ‘bot’ meme is easy to explain and blame,” Kitts said. “The reality is that there are lots of ordinary people buying and reselling tickets and even for legitimate buyers, there aren’t enough tickets to go around.”

Another reason there aren’t enough tickets to meet demand is not every ticket goes on sale.

Event sponsors, venue operators, fan clubs, as well as friends and family members of players, musicians and their staffs all get tickets before they go on sale.

Red Rocks spokesman Brian Kitts and 9NEWS reporter Jeremy Jojola discuss ticket scalping at Red Rocks.
Red Rocks spokesman Brian Kitts and 9NEWS reporter Jeremy Jojola discuss ticket scalping at Red Rocks.

“Someone once told me it was like someone throwing a private party,” Kitts said. “You get to invite who you want and tell them where to sit, and if you choose to sell a few spots, that’s OK too.”

When Kitts worked in sports, he saw all-star games where less than 30 percent of the tickets went on sale.

Even before ticket bots were created, fans competed with professional brokers and scalpers.

The secondary ticket market is a lucrative business.

In 2016, Northcoast Research estimated its worth at $8 billion.

Bots have made it easier to buy tickets for resale, but that's not the only way brokers get them.

Lowson courted event sponsors, vendors and venues so they’d give him their extra tickets.

“We were selling directly for them,” Lowson said.

We can’t say whether that’s happening in Denver.

“I think that it’s politically expedient to be ‘I’m for the fans, and I’m against the scalpers … ‘” Lowson said. “But they can’t really enforce those laws until the companies selling the tickets are willing to give up the data to show who the brokers are and who the fans are.”

Chapter 5

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN DENVER

The City of Denver doesn’t sell tickets to its venues. It contracts that out to a company called AXS.

AXS manages ticket sales, and its employees are the ones you see at the gate. Its website will aso re-route you to StubHub if tickets to a concert sell out.

That’s because StubHub pays to be AXS’ official secondary ticket seller.

We don’t know what StubHub pays for that, but we do know StubHub pays Denver an annual “integration payment” of $250,000.

All of this leaves fans like Spann frustrated.

“It’s a bucket list thing for me, and some, I feel, dishonest person takes the tickets and then nobody does anything about it,” Spann said. “It makes you feel a little bit like your voice doesn’t matter.”