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Can ticket buyers ever win the battle with the bots?

by Oscar Garza and James Kim | The Frame

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"Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about how "ticket bots" are destroying Broadway. Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Let's say a favorite band of yours is coming to town and you must get tickets.

So you get online as soon as tickets go on sale, only to find that the show is sold out. Then you find out there are tickets available, but they’re on what’s called the re-sale market. Those are usually companies that snatch up tickets in bulk and then sell them at marked up prices.

Well, the reason that these companies got tickets and you didn’t, is probably because of “bots.” Those are computer programs that can invade a legit ticket seller’s website, defeat any protections, and very quickly gobble up premium seats.

The New York state attorney general recently cracked down on this illegal practice, issued $2.7 million in fines against six companies, and ordered them to stop using bots. Whether it will have any effect there, and whether other states will follow suit, remains to be seen. (In California, it’s illegal for any ticket to be sold above face value. But resale companies operate here with impunity.)

The Frame's Oscar Garza spoke with Jeff John Roberts — a tech writer at Fortune magazine who’s been following the story — about how these bots go about buying tickets online, how "Hamilton" is trying to combat the scalpers, and if other states will follow suit. 

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

How are these bots able to make purchases from Ticketmaster or AXS — especially since these websites have security steps, such as captcha codes, that online buyers have to type as part of the process?

Even as the captchas get more sophisticated, to the point where even humans have a hard time trying to decipher them, the bots do it in a sense by using humans in other countries. That's people's jobs, all day, to simply type in the captchas. Even the more sophisticated ones will ask you to identify [images], which normally computers wouldn't be able to figure out right away. They've got humans on the other end doing it, almost working with the bots. So the captchas are failing to stop them. 

And they're using credit card numbers that have been supplied to them? 

Yeah, exactly. Basically, the software will go in and as soon as the concert drops, they immediately fill out all of the fields, put in the credit card number and enter it much faster than any human can. Since they have hundreds of credit cards on file, they can simply just buy up all the blocks of tickets available. And with this captcha process, it's simply impossible for you or me to go and buy a ticket to Beyoncé or whatever hot event that is going on right now. 

The hottest event going on in New York's Broadway scene is "Hamilton." The creator of that show, Lin-Manuel Miranda, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “Stop the Bots From Killing Broadway."  The producers of “Hamilton” are combating the problem by raising the premium seat prices substantially in an effort to combat ticket bots and the resale market. Do you see that making a difference in this regard? 

I guess I'll believe it when I see it on the street. I've been trying to get "Hamilton" tickets for months and I live in New York. Everyone knows that you just can't get them. While the intention is terrific, what's to guarantee that the bots won't simply sweep these up, too? 

I want to clarify something, because here in California — not that it's enforced — it's illegal to sell any ticket in any manner above the face value. Is that also true in New York? 

I don't believe that's the case. What the New York prosecutor did is, it's not [about] selling tickets above face value, it's about using a certain type of software, and also re-selling without a license. So that's how they pinch these people. But as far as I know, simply selling higher priced tickets is not illegal. 

I was surprised to learn that ticket bots have been illegal under New York law, but brokers are willing to risk prosecution and treat penalties as the cost of business. What was the action that New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, finally took?

He's sort of been rounding them up one-by-one and finding both the people that operate the bots, and also the ticket resellers who are basically colluding with them, and starting to impose some pretty heavy fines on them. When I wrote about it at the end of April, [Schneiderman] handed down $2.7 million in settlements, which basically means they pay and agree not to do it again. 

Do you think the action that has been taken in New York will have much effect? Could it encourage other states to take action? 

I wish I wasn't a skeptic, but frankly, no. I sure hope it does, but the sophistication in these operations are such, I just think they'll find a new corporate shell to operate in. They'll find other forms of software. It might fix it for a bit, but until I get a "Hamilton" ticket, I'm not gonna believe it. 

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