Give me a thousand bucks and I’ll get you a ticket myself (Should you use a ticket broker?)

This past weekend, I tried to buy some tickets to an out-of-town show.  Not being familiar with the theaters or the shows that were playing, I used a pretty simple Google search to try to find my way.  (Instead of typing in “Joe’s Palace Theater Honolulu” I typed in “Honolulu theaters.”) 

Author’s confession: sadly, Mrs. Consumer Courage and I did NOT travel to Hawaii this past weekend (or any weekend ever, in fact).  We did leave the area for a few days to get away from the snow (although it’s not the snow really – it’s the humidity). We’re just pretending that it was Hawaii.

What type of google search I did is relevant this week as we will see.  I clicked on a play that looked interesting, checked out the dates and hit the little box that says BUY TICKETS.  From there, I was whisked away to a seating chart and a list of prices.  The cheapest seat was close to $368.00.  I looked again to make sure that I did not accidentally check the box that said TICKETS & A MASSAGE.  

At this point, I should confess that I often suffer from a recently diagnosed malady. It’s been with me since childhood and there are no known cures, antidotes or remedies.  It’s called “Acute Vacation Amnesic Spending Euphoria,” (AVASE™) and it manifests itself as a complete lack of concern with normal price-based reason, whenever I’m on holiday. Meaning to say: when I’m on vacation, I lose the ability to shy away from an item that I would normally consider to be ‘too expensive.’ (The fact Canadian money looks like Monopoly money doesn’t help matters, either.)  

Editor’s note: We have to wonder if this is an inherited trait.  The official Dad of Consumer Courage was also known to suffer from this disorder.  While we were growing up, the thought of giving us quarters to play video games was (shall we say) frowned upon.  But, once the family set out on holiday, if we were to ask for money to play video games in the hotel, it seemed like the old man was made of quarters. (You’ll have to ask him if he suffered from AVASE™ or if he just wanted to get us to leave him alone….)

When we went to the box office to buy tickets for another play I asked the clerk “What’s up with that? Why are the tickets for that other play so unbelievably expensive?”
“Oh we’ve heard about that.  Those are probably brokers. Tickets for that other play are between $39 and $110.” 
Wait…..what? “You mean, that’s not your website? And you can’t stop it.”  We’ve heard about ticket brokers before.  (As it happens, not all of the stories are flattering.)  Should you use a broker? Is it safe?

At the most basic level, ticket brokers fill a need.  If people want tickets to everything and will pay dearly, why shouldn’t someone make a buck in the process?  After all, the ability to insert ourselves into a business transaction and make money off of the players without adding value IS one of the things that separates us from the animals.

  • Person A wants a ticket to a concert that he really wants to see but it’s sold out; 
  • Person B knows how to use the internet to find a ticket and can sell it to Person A (albeit with a stiff markup); 
  • Person A is just as happy, even though he spent 5 or 10 times the actual cost of the ticket.  All is well.

But, if you’re a stickler for consumer rights and more than just a wee-bit (ahem) obsessive, it’s not so simple.

What’s good about ticket brokers?

They can get you tickets when you think you’ve been shut out.  Plus, they have an association! (the National Association of Ticket Brokers ) with their very own code of ethics, which should make you feel better.  At the very least, if the person or company you are buying the tickets from is NOT registered w/the NATB (which you can check here ) that should eliminate them from your list right away.  Not that membership in an association is a magic wand or anything.  But, if you’re dealing with a broker that bothers to join a national group of brokers, they’ll be a lot easier to get ahold of if there’s a problem. And, hopefully, it means that you’re doing business with somebody who might act like they care (if only a little bit) what their reputation is.  

What’s bad about ticket brokers? 

Strangely enough, most brokers use a business model that includes what I’m calling “spec sales.”  A spec sale (or speculative sale) is when a broker lists a ticket for sale before he actually owns it. “Hmmmm that’s weird.  You mean when they take my money, they don’t even have a ticket to the event?” That’s right. What you are buying from most brokers is the RIGHT to buy a ticket. This doesn’t really pass the smell test does it? Essentially what brokers are saying is “give me a thousand bucks and I’ll go find you a ticket.”  

Doesn’t their code of ethics outlaw this sort of thing? As it happens….no. All it says is that they have to give you a 200% refund if they guarantee the ticket and can’t deliver. Two points here: 1) they can say a lot of things on their website and not really “guarantee” that you’ll get a ticket; and 2) codes of ethics don’t really have the force of law. They’re more like guidelines. I don’t know the worst thing that can happen to a broker who doesn’t follow their code of ethics.  But, I’m guessing that it’s not something that’s going to make you feel better if you end up in some far away city without the tickets that you thought you purchased.  

“Could that really happen?”  In fact, it did just a few weeks ago.  Some folks who wanted to see the Super Bowl no-doubt had a really favorable view of ticket brokers about a week before the big game.  They took off work, bought plane tickets to Arizona, purchased hotel rooms and (probably even) wore Seahawks underwear on the day of the game.  But, since the broker wasn’t able to score tickets, they were stuck watching from the outside like the rest of us.  (I don’t know these folks or if they’re still mad. But, I would venture to guess that they don’t much care that their brokers have a code of ethics….even if they got refunds)

Don’t take this the wrong way – but you don’t actually HAVE a ticket do you?

You can tell that you’re buying tix from someone who doesn’t actually have them, if you know where to look. We looked at the website for a very popular ticket broker that we’re not gonna name.  What’s your first danger sign?  When the website says something like: 

This site is independently owned and operated and is not affiliated with any official box office or official website. Tickets purchased through this website are fulfilled by trusted secondary market brokers and are sometimes sold above face value to reflect the costs of obtaining premium tickets.

It’s the “not affiliated with any official box office or official website” verbiage that should make you wonder if your purchase is a really good idea.   Another place you should look is whether a specific seat is mentioned.  Broker sites usually have a range of seat numbers for each ticket sold.  That’s your first clue that they don’t have a ticket yet.  And when the guarantee says that they will get you “the ticket you purchased or one that is as good or better!,” they are covering themselves for when you’re not sitting in quite the same place that you saw on the map on their website.

Who reads the Terms of Service, anyway?

Here’s a little secret: when you call yourself something fancy (like, I don’t know, Consumer Courage or something) you read through a lot of Terms of Service pages.  Those are the actual words in the box that we have to click “I agree” to get any further on the website that we are looking at. (Don’t feel bad.  Nobody else reads them either)  If you did, you would see that they hold a treasure-trove of warnings about the exact nature of your ticket-purchase, when you use a broker.

Since the terms of nearly every internet transaction are hidden away in these boxes that would take hours to read, very few of us see the signs that are saying DANGER! Will Robinson. DANGER!  
So what was in the box on the ticket broker’s website that we were about to agree to here? (main bullet points are actual terms of service.  Our translation is indented below each bullet point)

    • [Broker name] acts as an intermediary between buyers and ticket sellers (“TICKET SELLERS”) to facilitate the purchase and sale of event tickets, and as such is not directly involved in the actual ticket sale transaction between the buyers and TICKET SELLERS….
      • The word “intermediary” is the first indication that there are land mines here. 
      • RED FLAG language: They are admitting that they are “not directly involved in the actual ticket sale.” (then why am I giving you my money?)
    • Orders placed through SITE will be fulfilled by one of SITE’S network of participating TICKET SELLERS. Contact information for the TICKET SELLER who fulfills USER’S order (hereinafter known as “FULFILLER”) will be provided to USER upon completion of the purchase process….
      • You’re the USER and the website is the SITE. But, who on earth is the FULFULLER? That’s the person who is going to actually sell you a ticket and this website is admitting that they don’t even know who that person is yet. (new rule: if any contract you see has somebody called FULFILLER, you’re in over your head)
    • Credit Card Charges USER’S credit card will be charged by the FULFILLER responsible for fulfilling their order and not SITE. If USER has any questions about charges on USER’S credit card statement, USER should contact SITE at [customerservice address removed] or direct USER’S question to FULFILLER responsible for completing the ticket order. FULFILLER may charge or authorize USER’S credit card in advance of confirming ticket availability. If tickets are ultimately found to be unavailable, the USER’S credit card will not be charged or USER will receive a full refund for the charged amount.
      • RED FLAG language: “If tickets are ultimately found to be unavailable” which means: they are currently unavailable. So, you’re about to give your credit card numbers to someone who is going to sell you something that they are telling you that they don’t have.
    • Payment by Debit Card In some cases, FULFILLER may attempt to authorize a debit card multiple times, creating several holds on USER’S account….
      • RED FLAG language: “several holds on” your debit card account.  Many people use debit cards for everyday purchases. A hold is when the debit-card company thinks that you spent that money.  If they put three holds on your account for a ticket that is $200.00, the debit card company will think that you spent $600.00. Wanna have your entire account unusable until after the concert is over? (we didn’t think so)
    • Event Listings SITE does not guarantee the accuracy of event information on SITE including but not limited to event name, event location or venue, event start time, or event date.
      • RED FLAG language: “does not guarantee the accuracy of event information.” I don’t even know where to go with this. The date, time and location of the event could all be wrong?  Ye-gods.
    • Ticket Availability SITE cannot guarantee ticket availability until USER is in possession of their tickets. Generally, all ticket listings on SITE are a unique set of tickets from an individual TICKET SELLER. Some ticket listings on SITE may only be representations of available tickets and not actual seat locations or currently available tickets….
      • RED FLAGs: “cannot guarantee ticket availability….” and ticket listings “may only be representations of available tickets.” Riddle me this Batman: when you order dinner, do you want the waiter to bring you food or something that is the “representation” of food?

How to protect yourself

Exact seat-live ticket: Before you plunk down any money (or credit card numbers) for a seat, ticket or backstage pass, beg to see the actual seat you are going to be sitting in.  If you’re on a website that doesn’t give you the EXACT SEAT LOCATION it’s probably because there isn’t (and may not be) one in your future.  Every ticket has three designations to tell you where it’s located “Section#…Row #…and Seat #…..” (if there are no assigned seats, it will say something like “GA” for General Admission).  Spec-sales can’t tell you the exact seat you are buying and usually stop at the “row” level (often giving a list of rows “1-19”).  If this is the case, put your credit card back into your wallet. 

Look for company name, address and phone number: Are you buying tickets from an actual company or some guy in a trailer who can afford a modem? Being an established player does not guarantee that they are legit. But, you will have a much easier time finding them if things go south. 

Use your credit card: Do not use cash or a debit card to buy anything over the web.  Your credit card company has a department to help if you were ripped off. They might even freeze the transaction if you catch it early enough.  If you use a debit card, once you hit the button to MAKE THE PURCHASE, your money is in the wind.  Same goes with PayPal.  As we wrote in an earlier post, PayPal doesn’t protect you so much if you have a beef with what you bought.  Use your credit card instead.  If they refuse to let you use a credit card, consider that proof that they are not legit enough to process credit card payments. 

No Craig’s list: Do we really need to link to an article that shows somebody who showed up to buy something from a Craig’s list ad and got robbed, shot or worse?  Anyone with opposable thumbs can put an ad on Craig’s list or some other online trading site.  You want to pay for tickets, not some scary story. 

Are you REALLY the right place: Buying tickets on the web is incredibly easy.  If you’re not careful, you might find yourself on a website that looks a LOT like its the venue you’re going to.  It could be a broker who made up a dummy website so he can charge out-of-towners $300.00 for a ticket that is only $50.00.  (it’s been known to happen)  If you’re early enough to be buying tickets from the box office, find them on the web and call them directly.  “Are you the box office for _______” should be the first question out of your mouth.  Then if you want to recheck the prices (or seat choice) on the web on your own, have at it.  But, make darn sure that you are buying from the actual theater and not somebody who just wants to make money off tourists who don’t know any better.    

Think twice about using an online Broker: It’s up to you.  Maybe it’ll work out and you’ll see a really killer show.  Or maybe you’ll wind up in Arizona in a pair of Seahawks boxer shorts that keep bunching up on you because you’re on a bar stool and not in a stadium seat. 

Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who does NOT own any NFL undergarments.  But, he does have a Terrible Towel)