Roboscalper 

The real reason you couldn't score U2 tickets? Turns out some of the buyers at Ticketmaster.com weren't human.

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He clicks refresh, and now the wait is an estimated twenty minutes.

The Sledge sits back, sighs, and sips his coffee. Scalpers ruined the fan club presale, he knows. There must be tons of them in here too.


Elsewhere in the East Bay -- on the other end of the spectrum from the unfortunate suckers in line at Tower -- is a man in his late thirties whose wife and kids have gotten used to sitting in the front row at shows. He's a professional scalper whom we'll call Jim Johnson. He's in his office on the phones with some of his runners. Johnson hires many, many runners to stand in line, call up Ticketmaster, and surf the Internet for tickets.

"The pull is tight," Johnson says as calls come in. Lots of demand all over the place -- and not just from scalpers.

"Everything that normal people do to get tickets, we do too," Johnson says in a rapid-fire salesman's voice. "We just plan much longer, work harder, and do them all at once. ... What we're selling here is time. The time it took for us to get the tickets, the time you don't have to spend waiting in line for them."

For all the hoopla about how the Internet was supposed to change everything, it did fundamentally alter the universe occupied by ticket buyers, scalpers, brokers, and agencies. Within the span of roughly a decade, ticket agencies had to contend with a completely new distribution channel that grew from virtually nothing to $1.1 billion in a decade, according to research company Jupiter Media Matrix.

"The Internet in general and eBay in particular have changed the dynamics of brokering and scalping across the continent," says Zennie Abraham of Oakland's Sports Business Simulations. "The secondary ticket market has exploded, incidents of fraud have exploded, and the artists, venues, and primary ticketing agencies are unhappy about all the revenue that is going somewhere else. And the government isn't collecting tax revenue on those gray-market transactions."

Abraham notes that it is now cost-effective for regular ticket buyers to purchase four tickets to a high-demand event even when only two are desired, because the extras can easily be sold online for a profit -- at least in a state such as California, where scalping is legal. Not only is every ticket buyer a potential scalper, but career scalpers can instantly quote national real-time prices for tickets.

Scalping has become a commodities market, with tickets bought, sold, rebought, and resold like stocks on electronic boards such as StubHub and Tickets.com. Brokers inhabit every proverbial corner of the Internet. Peer-to-peer auction and sales sites such as eBay and Craigslist have been largely co-opted by scalpers and professional brokers -- as well as many, many fraudsters.

Johnson, for instance, like his fellow ticketing professionals, started planning for the U2 sale about five months ago, and has been working the pulls since Tuesday, Bloody Tuesday. Preliminary results look good. "We got some," he says, being deliberately vague in the way you might expect from someone who agreed to be interviewed only if identified by a pseudonym. "I would've liked more. There needs to be five more shows. This whole profession's in a slump. Used to have a buy like this a couple times a year."

By 10:30 a.m., the runners phone in with two tickets here, four tickets there -- all just ready to be marked up for a couple times their face value and sold internationally to the highest bidder. Johnson consults his seating chart from the San Jose HP Pavilion with its 17,483-person capacity. In fifteen minutes, the April 10 second show will go on sale. There's still time to pull more, but he knows he isn't alone.

The people in line aren't the problem.

The people on the phone will be tied up till their hair turns blue.

The people online typing in nonsense words stand a better chance; but even then, Johnson isn't concerned.

Within the last few months, Johnson has learned about a new kind of player with an almost insurmountable advantage, an edge that no regular fan could possibly afford, but one that every major scalper seems to be getting.

All those millions of hits on the Ticketmaster server? Johnson knows that many of them are not human.


Imagine waiting in line for hours to buy a ticket to see your favorite band, only to have a pack of robots swarm in and elbow you out of place at the last minute. The garbled words at Ticketmaster.com are there to stop computer programs from logging on and buying tickets automatically. But word among savvy scalpers is that this safeguard is breakable. The most high-tech scalpers have software that allows them to crack these character-recognition tests and proceed with a fully automated ticket-buying transaction.

You don't even need to be a computer nerd to make the program work. You can outsource it to someone such as Greg Mori, a former UC Berkeley doctoral candidate who has pioneered giving computers the ability to read through visual clutter. Ever since late 2002 -- when The New York Times published an article about Mori's success cracking Yahoo's online character-recognition test -- hundreds of hackers have beat a figurative path to his door.

Initially, Mori had only the slightest idea why anyone would pay for his code, which simply deciphered the word in a distorted image that Yahoo sent to people who wanted to open one of its free e-mail accounts. Visitors to the site were asked to decode the distorted image -- called a Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart, or CAPTCHA -- as a way to verify that they were human. They then typed in the letters of the word in a box underneath it, sent it back to Yahoo, and received their account. Yahoo's optical character-recognition test was designed to keep automated programs called bots from automatically registering for thousands of new e-mail accounts to be used for spamming and other nefarious purposes. Up to that point, computers couldn't effectively pass the test.

"There was this big burst of activity from random people I'd never heard of," Mori says. "It was always hard to tell who they were. Half of them had Hotmail or Yahoo or other free e-mail accounts. They could be anywhere."

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