High-tech scalpers hit World Series

Rockies aimed for fairness by selling online, but their ticket website says software 'robots' cut in line.

There is less joy in "Mile-highville" after a mighty 740,000 Colorado Rockies fans struck out on Tuesday, trying to score some World Seriestickets. But at least they had a chance to step up to the plate.

Not so the day before, when the team's designated online ticketing system shut down, swamped by nearly 10 million requests. The culprits were not desperate fans, the ticket company says, but automated software robots – known as bots – deployed by scalpers to cut in front of human buyers online.

Bots are a growing problem for sports fans and concertgoers everywhere, although it's not clear how great a challenge they pose. The flap over Rockies' tickets illustrates the larger conundrum over online ticket sales. While the Internet has democratized the process of getting tickets to high-profile events – more people can go online than stand in lines overnight – it has also simplified and expanded high-tech scalping. Industry executives are wringing their hands over how to devise a fairer system.

"We love the Internet, but when you are a ticket-buyer and are forced to compete against thousands – if not millions – of people, what are your chances of getting a ticket?" asks Sean Pate, spokesperson for StubHub.com, a website for ticket reselling based in San Francisco. "I think we are at a situation where, to make it completely fair, we almost have to go back to the old way of ticket distribution, which is people lined outside of a box office spending the night."

In the case of the Colorado Rockies, the majority of the team's 52,000 World Series tickets went to local fans, says Shaw Taylor, a spokesman with Paciolan, the company handling the online sales. Four in 5 registered buyers lived in Colorado and the average order was roughly three tickets, he adds.

Bots still posed a problem on Tuesday, crowding online waiting rooms and "forcing a lot of valid buyers out," says Mr. Taylor. But it wasn't enough to force a repeat of the previous day's shutdown when, according to Taylor, the system was swarmed not only by ticket-seeking bots but also bots designed to crash the server.

Other industry executives suspect that Paciolan simply wasn't prepared to handle the legitimate traffic spike. Taylor declined, for reasons of security, to get into specifics of the attacks.

In any case, the use of automated bots is on the rise, Ticketmaster says. It estimates that on some days they account for 80 percent of all ticket requests on its website. The company won a first-ever court injunction this month against one automation service.

Court documents in that case show how high-tech scalping works. In a written declaration, scalper Chris Kovach explained how he used automated devices called "workers" from Ohio-based RMG Technologies, Inc. Mr. Kovach described sending out workers – sometimes more than 100 – to simultaneously hunt down tickets within a certain price point or to wait in "spinning" mode until additional tickets suddenly became available. RMG designed the workers, he adds, to defeat anti-bot defenses that force users to retype characters shown in a distorted image.

A spokesperson for RMG could not be reached. In court filings, the company argued that its product amounts to a form of an Internet browser requiring human interaction, not a bot. The federal judge disagreed, noting that RMG's website advertises its products as "let[ting] you do the work of a dozen people at once."

Many ticket-industry executives doubt the ruling will have a broad impact, with some veteran ticket brokers saying they didn't know the technology existed.

"I think that this tech is very small" in the marketplace, says Don Vaccaro, founder of TicketNetwork, based in Vernon, Conn.

If high-profile ticket scarcities are exacerbated more by the burgeoning Internet marketplace rather than automation, is the solution to revert to selling tickets offline?

That model, say experts, cuts out fans who might be traveling, wastes a lot of people's time, and favors those whose time is least valuable. Neither does it make sense to crack down on reselling tickets, since it will just drive the inevitable practice underground, they say. A dwindling number of states – down to six – have laws capping or forbidding the resale markup on tickets, according to the National Association of Ticket Brokers.

"The question of regulation is not whether there should be a ban on resale, but whether teams should be forced to think carefully about their initial allocation of tickets so they are 'fair,' " says Dan Elfenbein, a business professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of a study on sports ticketing. Venue owners in the future, he says, will probably grow more sophisticated about allocating tickets for long-term fans, children, locals, or other groups.

The Rockies opted instead to put their inventory online for general sales, creating opportunities for scalpers who knew how to manipulate the system, he says. "It's fair in the sense of an open playing field, but it's unfair in that you'd think they'd want to give preferential treatment to those who live in the Denver area or who are long-term ticket holders."

Holding back tickets, however, isn't always popular either. Recent complaints from parents trying to buy tickets for Disney's Hannah Montana performances in the Midwest have prompted attorneys general in several states to investigate what caused the ticket scarcity.

Newspaper reports have blamed some of the shortage on venue owners withholding tickets. Ticketmaster says scalpers used automation software to acquire some of the tickets.

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