Current Issue #477

Music festivals and venues battle predatory ticket resellers and Facebook fakes

Adelaide music festivals and venues battle predatory ticket resellers and Facebook fakes

Ticket scalpers have long plagued music fans and promoters, but recent years have seen a proliferation of third-party resellers and scammers using Facebook and online advertising to lure concertgoers into buying second-hand or invalid tickets at inflated prices.

It’s early April, and a young music fan refreshes their Facebook feed to discover some exciting news among the engagement announcements and photos of breakfast. An event entitled ‘Childish Gambino | Adelaide’ has appeared, with thousands of other fans already clicking ‘interested’ or ‘attending’ – including some of their friends. It seems odd, however, because the Grammy and Emmy-winning, Lion King-starring musician and actor Donald Glover is already due to play one show in Adelaide this year, at Spin Off, a local offshoot of east coast festival Splendour In The Grass. The date is the same, but this event’s ticket link does not lead to the festival’s website or official ticketing partner Moshtix, but another website entirely.

This phenomenon is part of a growing problem facing Australian musicians, concert promoters and fans, a digital successor to the shady-looking fellow outside a venue with a suspicious amount of tickets to sell. The Childish Gambino listing is an example of the widespread practice of creating unauthorised Facebook events for tours, which then direct buyers to unrelated third-party websites instead of official ticket sellers. Despite attempts by Spin Off organisers to report the event, it remains online today.

An unauthorised Facebook event listing directing fans to ticket resale site Viagogo

A regular culprit in Australia, and the creator of the Childish Gambino event, is a page called ‘Australia Concerts & Festivals’, created in March 2019 and, according to Facebook, managed from Germany. The page posts its own public event listings for major tours from Dylan Moran and Cirque du Soleil to Metallica and Hamilton the musical, which frequently float to the top of Facebook searches. Each event links to a variety of ticket reselling websites with less-than-household names, like eatmytickets.com, a site registered to the German town of Grünwald, or Viagogo.

The latter has been widely criticised for its online practices, which have included liberal use of the word ‘official’, and alarming on-page notices like “less than 1 per cent of tickets left for this event” to spur panicked fans to snap up whatever tickets are available without first checking other sites. The Geneva-based site’s attempt to convey a false sense of scarcity becomes evident when users dial up the amount of tickets they are seeking – as if by magic, more tickets become available. More insidiously, Viagogo spends big on Google ad listings to ensure it is the first result when fans search for an event. The result is that many might not even realise they are buying over-priced, second-hand tickets from an unofficial third party until after the purchase is complete.

“We have also received phone calls from customers who have purchased tickets for shows at significantly inflated prices and have been given the impression by Viagogo that a show is sold out, even if it isn’t.

The fine print reveals these sites are in fact intermediaries between seller and buyer, and any issues with tickets become the problem of venues and promoters who must break the news to disappointed fans unable to contact the site they purchased them through. “We have certainly seen an increase in people turning up at The Gov with tickets purchased through Viagogo,” Sarah Martin from The Governor Hindmarsh says. “Unfortunately for those people, the chances of getting into the show are hit and miss as those tickets are sometimes sold more than once and the first person through the door gets in, but the next is denied, and subsequently disappointed.

“We have also received phone calls from customers who have purchased tickets for shows at significantly inflated prices and have been given the impression by Viagogo that a show is sold out, even if it isn’t. Unfortunately, once they have completed their transaction there is little we can do about it.”

But in the last 18 months the industry and regulators have started to hit back. In early 2018, Ed Sheeran cancelled thousands of tickets resold through Viagogo, while high-profile Australian rock group Gang of Youths launched a ‘F*** Viagogo’ campaign, labelling the site “one of the most disgraceful and disruptive scams our live industry has faced in recent years” while calling for bipartisan legislative action.

billy-bragg-the-gov-adelaide-review-andreas-heuer
Billy Bragg performs at the Governor Hindmarsh, a venue that has had to turn away punters with invalid tickets bought online (Photo: Andreas Heuer)

In April 2019, the Federal Court found Viagogo had breached Australian Consumer Law by making ‘false or misleading representations and engaged in conduct liable to mislead the public’. The Court took particular aim at the site’s use of the word ‘official’ in its advertising, along with hidden fees that included a 27.6 per cent booking fee. “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 at the time. “Viagogo was charging extraordinarily high booking fees and many consumers were caught out.”

Perhaps most significantly, on July 18 Google itself announced it had suspended Viagogo from paying to top its search results, a move that saw it immediately tumble down the page rankings, below official providers. For its part, Viagogo has roundly disputed being labelled a ‘scam’, claiming its service simply brings greater competition to the ticket selling market, and provides users with a platform to easily resell unwanted legitimate tickets. Whoever administers Australia Concerts & Festivals does not respond to messages about its identity or business ties.

How Viagogo’s business model can weather such a blow remains to be seen. But when one online door closes, savvy operators often find a window – or in this case, a platform with terms of service that have yet to catch up. Another common scam is harder to combat, as fake Facebook user profiles appear in popular event listings with messages like, “I got 4 tickets for myself and my family and we won’t be able to go anymore due to some circumstances… Willing to sell out at affordable price Dm me if interested”. Once money changes hands via online payment, a fake e-ticket is sent, or nothing at all.

These scammers, at least, can be avoided with a healthy dose of skepticism and Google’s reverse image search to test suspicious profiles. Or, by pasting the entirety of their original post into a search bar to see if the same script is being regurgitated en masse into events around the internet.

According to Spin Off organisers, the volume of such scammers has been “huge” for this year’s event. While organisers and altruistic users can report obviously fake profiles to Facebook, the Spin Off team have also attempted to educate fans, posting a warning to avoid profiles that look newly created, have high privacy settings and few friends, and request payment in methods other than PayPal.

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Header image:
Sia Duff

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