Bots at the Box Office Pushing Event Ticket Prices Higher

Bay Area Tech Firm Finds Bots Constitute 40% of Web Traffic to Ticketing Sites

What to Know

  • New research finds 40% of web traffic to ticket-selling websites comes from 'bad bots', automated programs which buy up tickets
  • Scalpers use bots to cut in front of the line, buy as many tickets as possible, and resell the seats at a huge markup
  • Using bots to buy tickets is illegal, but NBC Bay Area learned state and federal authorities have made no arrests for breaking anti-bot laws

If Wednesday night's Billboard Music Awards on NBC inspired you to go to a concert soon, prepare to fight for a seat -- and not just with fellow fans.

Billions of 'bots' are already waiting in line to buy up tickets before you -- then resell them at a much higher price.

It happens to shows like "Hamilton". The smash hit Broadway play returned to San Francisco in February, and it remains one of the hottest tickets in town.

As Jennifer Burkholter waited in line with her son to attend a recent "Hamilton" performance, she said finding seats had been almost impossible.

"I got online the day tickets went on sale, and we were number 11,000 in line," she said.

Burkholter competed with thousands of other "Hamilton" fans for tickets. But an invisible army of automated computer programs, called "bots," very likely also crowded the line, online.

Battling the Bots

Experiences like this are supported by new research from Distil Networks, an online security firm with operations in San Francisco. Edward Roberts, Senior Director of Product Marketing at Distil, says bots have made ticket sellers a top target.

"The moment that they go on sale, the bots are -- in milliseconds -- purchasing tickets," Roberts said. "[Bots are] locking real fans out."

Distil helps ticket companies fight bots -- to improve your odds of paying face value. It's a constant battle; in a new report obtained by NBC Bay Area, Distil discovered 'bad' bots now make up nearly 40% of all web traffic to online box offices. That doesn't mean bots grab 40% of seats, however; they can get more, because bots are able to buy tickets faster than any human.

"Ticketing companies have been the most-abused industry around," Roberts said. "They were the earliest that were attacked by bots."

The bots work by mimicking human behavior. A bot user deploys thousands or millions of the programs to log on to ticket selling sites, where the bots can simulate mouse clicks and rapidly enter credit card data to purchase tickets. Distinguishing a bot from a real person is a Holy Grail of sorts for online security researchers.

"They do all manner of techniques to evade detection," Roberts said. "They may even solve CAPTCHAs, which are those annoying letters everyone hates seeing, but that is a technique used to try and block bots."

Bots gobble up and resell tickets to whatever is popular, making millions of dollars for scalpers. While ticket selling websites are constantly adding technological barriers to stymie bots, bot designers are rapidly keeping pace.

"It's an arms race," Roberts said. "Every time there is a defense put in place, there is a reaction from the bot operator to try and evade whatever methods are being detected."

Lack of Law Enforcement

Using bots to buy event admission tickets is illegal. California banned the use use of ticket buying bots in 2013, and Congress passed a similar federal law three years later.

Enforcement of both laws appears to be absent. NBC Bay Area asked the California Department of Justice how many people the state has charged with violating the 2013 law; the state Attorney General's office said there have been no cases.

At the federal level, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas sponsored the Better Online Ticket Sales, or BOTS Act, of 2016. Last year, Sen. Moran told the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in a Senate hearing he wants to see more enforcement efforts.

"It's going to require, in my mind, someone being made an example of," Sen. Moran said.

NBC Bay Area asked the FTC and the U.S. Department of Justice how many cases of bot use in violation of the BOTS Act have been investigated. Again, the answer was zero.

Distil Networks' Edward Roberts says his team is able to track bots, and pinpoint their home base. "We see billions of bots every day," Roberts said. "Eighty-five percent of the bot operations are coming from North America."

Inside the Bot Sellers' Black Market

NBC Bay Area did some sleuthing, too. We found a website that advertises ticket-buying bots for sale. We won't share the site's name, as it appears to be offering an illegal service. We did reach out to the bot sellers for comment, but they did not respond.

The bot sellers also offer "spinners" -- bots that instantly mark-up and resell tickets on public sites, like San Francisco-based StubHub.

Jeff Poirier, General Manager of Music and Theater at StubHub, says stopping bot users is a top priority -- but a huge challenge.

"If it's illegal, they're going to figure out a way to work around it," he said.

Poirier says StubHub identifies bot users, and bans them from selling on its platform. But he admits StubHub can't catch them all.

"Unless we know where they purchased those tickets, and how they purchased them -- what they used to purchase them -- we don't know where they've acquired those tickets, or how," Poirier said.

StubHub tells us it is a client of Distil Networks in its fight against bots. Both StubHub and Distil agree: bot users are more and more aggressive, so the law and its enforcers need to be just as aggressive.

"We have actively advocated for effective and enforceable bots legislation worldwide," Poirier said. "

What Can You Do?

Sen. Moran's office told NBC Bay Area the Senator plans to question the FTC later this month about its inability to enforce the BOTS Act. We'll be keeping an eye on that proceeding.

In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to try and get ahead of the bots:

  • Look for ticket pre-sale offers.
  • See if the artist is holding an advance sale.
  • Ask the venue if a membership gets you an opportunity to buy early.
  • Check your credit cards: sometimes hot tickets are reserved for card members in advance of public sales.
  • If you're willing to risk it, wait until the day before or day of the event to buy. Sometimes extra tickets will be available, or ticket holders who can't make it will try to unload their seats.
  • Always buy tickets directly from the venue, sports team, artist, or promoter, or an authorized re-seller. Otherwise, you may end up paying too much, or with a counterfeit ticket.
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