Computerized bulk-ticket buyers are a common scourge of arts and entertainment presenters. By hoarding seats, these ticket bots force the public to pay higher prices. A new law sets out to halt them.

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Ngai Kwan, ticketing manager for Seattle Theatre Group (STG), was scanning the ticketing screen as a Paramount show was about to go on sale. It wasn’t expected to sell out, so she wasn’t surprised to see normal, steady sales for the first minute.

Then, suddenly, the entire house locked up — that is, every seat was now in someone’s purchasing cart.

“It was like, ‘What’s going on, what’s going on?’ ” said Kwan. “It was happening so fast.”

Josh LaBelle, STG’s executive director, nodded, saying:

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“Humans can’t do that.”

For Kwan and LaBelle, this strange phenomenon is a sign of “ticket bots,” a common scourge of arts and entertainment presenters that sell tickets online. “Bots” is a term for software designed to beat website security in order to buy tickets in bulk, then resell them on a third-party website.

Ticket resale, at its pricier end called “ticket scalping,” is legal in Seattle. But bot critics argue that computerized purchasing prevents ordinary users from getting the seats they want, forcing them to buy from a third party at exorbitant prices. With a new state law outlawing bots going into effect in late-July, ticket sellers are gearing up to take legal action against bot users in future sales.

The law affects ticket sales in general, from sporting events to theatrical performances, concerts and exhibitions. Bots are also banned in 13 other states, including Oregon and California.

It doesn’t mean an end to online-ticket scalping, but LaBelle is hopeful that it will make the problem more manageable. He estimates that 35 to 40 percent of tickets for hot shows are often purchased by bots.

Josh LaBelle, Seattle Theatre Group’s executive director, led the charge to push for a new law against “ticket bots” — software that can buy tickets online en masse. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Josh LaBelle, Seattle Theatre Group’s executive director, led the charge to push for a new law against “ticket bots” — software that can buy tickets online en masse. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

“What we’ve done with bots is hopefully taken a big link out of the chain here, making it harder for [scalpers] to get their hands on inventory,” he said.

How ticket bots hurt consumers

As Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sees it, bots pose a twofold problem for consumers.

“It’s maddening … you want to buy a ticket for a show and this device impedes the consumer’s ability to do that,” said Ferguson, who originally proposed the law to the state legislature.

“It’s not just that they’re excluded from the event, but that they have to pay two or three times face value in order to attend the event,” he added.

A patron who wants to buy tickets to “Wicked” at the Paramount and does a Google search for “Wicked Seattle” will see, among the top results, a site called paramount.theatre-seattle.com — which, despite its name, is not affiliated with the theater. The highest-priced orchestra-level seat on that site might sell for upward of $600.

But a scroll down to the Paramount’s own site, stgpresents.org, the fifth search result, shows that an equivalent ticket would have cost $134.

Similarly misleading ads pop up on a search for “Benaroya Hall,” which has also experienced ticket scalping for large events.

Buyer beware

A few tips for consumers purchasing event tickets online:

1. Take care when clicking the first link on an Internet search for an event. Ticket resellers often pay top dollar for the top ad spots.

2. Check that you’re on the official venue website by looking for a notice identifying the website or an “About” page that gives the history of the venue.

3. Read the fine print. Ticket resellers are required to post that they’re not affiliated with the venue, so it’s there, but may be hidden.

Source: 5th Avenue Theatre

This sort of thing concerns Bernie Griffin, managing director of the 5th Avenue Theatre, who observes that some patrons may then assume that going to the theater is too expensive for them.

The 5th Avenue, she said, still tries to seat patrons who have purchased tickets from brokers.

“We always try our best to say, please go to the official website,” she said. “But if it’s a sold-out show, it’s a challenge.”

For theater tickets, resellers use URLs like “seattle-theatre.com” and, in the Paramount’s case, the name of the theater itself, acknowledging only in fine print that it isn’t affiliated with the venue.

Resellers often buy top spots on Google Ad searches so that they’re the first option on a search — for nonprofit companies like Seattle Theatre Group and 5th Avenue, it’s a challenge to compete for that spot.

“It’s not cheap, so it’s all part of what we have to do to alert the consumer to who is really the authentic ticket sale, and even that’s not always effective,” said LaBelle.

Hot activity, bot activity

Not all ticket scalping is done by bots, but bots make the process for scalpers much easier.

Usually, websites block bulk purchasing by computers by looking for trademark signs that humans aren’t on the other end of the screen — a common test is the “Captcha” method that requires users to enter a set of letters and numbers displayed on the screen.

But this technology doesn’t catch every robot. In 2010, four people were indicted for programming a way around Captcha to get into ticketing websites, making $25 million over several years. A bot is designed to get past these obstacles so that computers can buy up tickets.

LaBelle and Kwan also suspect that bots may put many tickets in their sales cart, while speculating on prices on other sites, controlling a kind of “stock market” on tickets while the tickets are withheld from human users.

How can presenters like STG tell that a bot is at work? Bot-enabled purchases are repetitive. Unceasing. Inhuman.

“They don’t take a break, they don’t take lunch,” said Kwan. “They can keep doing this for hours and hours and hours until they’re blocking every sale.”

LaBelle hopes that by keeping track of suspicious sales, he will have enough material to hand to the attorney general’s office or a private attorney. It’s then up to lawyers to track down the original buyer and prove that software was used to get around website security to buy the tickets. If identified, a bot user can face an injunction or, if the state brings the case, civil penalties of up to $2,000 per violation.

If the court decides that every single ticket bought by a bot equals one “violation,” then “damages could add up quickly” for a bot user, explained Peter Lavallee, communications director for the attorney general.

The Seattle Times attempted to contact a number of ticket resellers Friday afternoon, but none were immediately available for comment.

Supporters of the law point to the fact that it makes bot activity explicitly illegal as a violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act. Before the law’s approval by Gov. Jay Inslee in April, this was murky because ticket reselling in general is legal. Now, lawyers can take civil action against this specific activity.

“That’s frustrating for consumers and frankly it’s not fair for consumers,” said Ferguson.

“My hope is that the change in the state law will hopefully curb the bad behavior on some level and, number two, send the message that we intend to follow up on the law.”

LaBelle recognizes that it will be “trial and error” to trace the bots online, but says he’s committed to pursuing suspect sales. He hopes this will improve patron access to value-priced tickets.

“They’re going to feel better about their experience and come back to us,” he said. “It’s worth it.”