2014 promises to be another great year of global sport. This summer we have the FIFA World Cup in Brazil to look forward to as well as the Commonwealth Games which is being hosted by Glasgow. The feel-good factor generated by the 2012 Olympic Games has already been felt in Scotland with over 90% of the tickets for the 11 days of action already sold, and expectations of a complete sell out of the games is on the cards.
Technology is a wonderful thing and has made ticketing for major events so much easier. Barcodes and Q-Codes allow immediate security and verification of the authenticity of a ticket and the identification of the holder. Print at home technology means that tickets bought a few seconds ago on the other side of the world can be in your hand within seconds, meaning significant reductions in the handling and administration costs of ticketing events, as well as issues that arise when tickets go astray.
But unfortunately, technology has also driven up the number of criminals who see big events as big opportunities to make big bucks. Major events, concerts and shows a decade ago were blighted by the spectre of ticket touts, who would acquire tickets at knock-down prices from Corporate Sponsors who had little interest in attending events, and sell them at inflated prices outside the venues. Many of us have stories of picking up bargains in this way, only to see the name of a Multinational company on the ticket. During the 2006 World Cup there were stories of football fans buying tickets outside one stadium in Germany that saw them sitting in the highly-secure area reserved for the VIPs and visiting foreign dignitaries.
For the really big events such as the FIFA World Cup, rogue ticketing companies launch websites on a weekly basis, listing events where demand far outstripped supply and simply take people’s money and never deliver any goods. They have a window of opportunity thanks to the delays in dispatching the official tickets to make their cash. For most events, tickets are not printed and dispatched until around 60 days prior to an event, by which time the criminals will have packed up shop and more than likely have moved onto the next big event.
In a recent report issued by the City of London Police, they estimate that the UK is home to over 1,000 ticket touts who are responsible for contributing over £40 million to organised criminal networks per annum. Unfortunately, the recovery of that cash is virtually impossible. One in seven of us have been unwitting victims of bogus ticketing websites, according to their report.
Organisations such as FIFA, The International Olympic Committee and the Lawn Tennis Association spend hundreds of thousands of pounds in trying to prevent both genuine tickets falling into criminal hands or simply criminals setting up businesses to commit fraud. In the run up to the London Olympics in 2012, a specialist police unit, known as Operation Podium was set up to great effect. In the 18 months prior to the start of the games the team shut down a number of high profile sites that had been offering fake tickets and criminal charges were imposed on the men behind the scams. Despite there being only one authorised ticket seller in the UK, the Operation Podium team identified over 200 unauthorised websites and eight that were set up specifically for fraudulent purposes. Unfortunately, with tickets for events being so scarce, buyers were forced onto the secondary market which created favourable conditions for fraudsters, especially with websites that were well designed, ranked high on search engines and mimicked the official website. One high profile case involved the website http://2012-londonsummergames.com which was reported to have defrauded over 400 people for a total of over €500,000 in just five weeks. The owner of the site was sentenced to four years imprisonment in 2011.
In addition, the ticketing team behind the London Olympics, headed by Paul Williamson took the unusual step of reaching out to the more commonly known Ticket Touts. They made it clear in no uncertain terms that their presence would be very unwelcome at any Olympic events and the full force of the law and tax authorities would be used should anyone be found plying their trade during the games. In total 220 arrests were made during the Olympic and Paralympic games in London with an almost zero tolerance approach taken that certainly detracted many from chancing their arm.
The Operation Podium team conducted 19 separate operations designed to identify and shut down fraudulent websites selling tickets for a variety of events in the UK. Whilst there is legislation in place to prevent reselling of many different types of sporting tickets (such as the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006), other events are not so lucky. Two years ago Take That announced a series of concerts to mark their reunion. The police knew of a small number of unlicensed websites that were planning on offering tickets, but within hours of the tickets being made available they were tracking hundreds of new websites, all offering tickets. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these were fake and only shut down after damage had been done in terms of stealing fans money and damaging the reputation of the band through association. The authorities are already predicting that the current craze around One Direction will see hundreds more websites pop up as their sell-out world stadium tour kicks off in a few months.
Come June time the eyes of the world will be firmly on Brazil who will be hosting the 20th FIFA World Cup. So far over 1.1 million tickets have been sold through official channels, with a number of further phases to come. Come tournament time and the greatest show on earth is bound to be played out in front of capacity stadiums. Once again, huge demand coupled with scarce supply means football fans who are heading to Brazil will take a risk on trying to find alternative methods to get their match tickets. A simple search for the term “Brazil World Cup Tickets” on Google throws up over 38 million results, with some organisations who have no official link to FIFA or the organising committee stating that they can “provide authentic tickets for all games” or “guarantee best tickets”.
The danger here is that tickets will not be produced until close to the start of the tournament meaning that fake ticketing websites will have already collected hard-earned cash from unsuspecting football fans and disappeared into the virtual wilderness before buyers realise that they have been duped.
In previous tournaments there was a way to acquire tickets through a travel package. Many organisations hedged their bets that they would receive tickets closer to the tournament and sold expensive travel packages to desperate fans. In many instances the flights and hotel bookings were real, but the tickets never materialised. Some travel companies were victims just as much as the individuals were, never receiving the tickets that had paid for. However, many simply used the cover of adding the extra value of travel to line their pockets even more. For the FIFA World Cup in Brazil this year there are no official travel package partnership and thus no organisation is allowed to offer a package of travel and tickets.
Despite promises to crack down on the practice, there hasn’t been a major tournament in recent memory where you couldn’t pick up Sponsors tickets in the run up to the kick off outside the stadium. In Portugal’s 2004 European Championship I collected almost the full set of “official” sponsors names on tickets I bought outside stadiums, right under the noses of the police. The memorable TV adverts prior to France ’98 and Belgium/Holland 2000 of the lone England fan being turned away at the gate because his name didn’t match what was on the ticket was a romantic notion. In reality, the queues and chaos getting into the grounds meant no security checks could take place. In Germany 2006 I was actually asked for ID after turning up late for a game and the stewards had nothing better to do, but on the other hand when I asked about spare tickets at another venue during the same tournament at the official ticket booth I was pointed in the direction of the Corporate entrance and told to ask people outside there.
Prior to the last World Cup in South Africa in 2010, one of the most respected names on the Internet, Symantec published a report that highlighted the problems major sporting events bring. They saw a massive increase in cybercrime, especially from traditional 419 Scams relating to fake competition winners in the run up to the competition as people desperate to watch the games were willing to explore any avenue to get their hands on tickets. The number of spam-related or phishing emails increased to over 25% of the global spam emails.
“Right now, spammers are reliant on the massive wave of excitement and expectation that typically surrounds an event like the FIFA World Cup,” said MessageLabs Intelligence Senior Analyst, Paul Wood at the time. “Riding this wave, spammers get the attention of their victims by offering products for sale or enticing them to click on a link. It is not uncommon for the event to appear in the subject line of an email but for the body of the same email to be completely unrelated.”
Symantec have already highlighted a number of websites that have been designed to look like official FIFA World Cup Sponsor websites in order to trick users into handing over personal details in return for the promise of big prizes, the biggest one leveraging the name of Brazilian payment card operator CIELO which has been used for a phishing scam. In addition, one particular company who have been featured on BBC’s Rip Off Britain in the past are selling tickets for many World Cup games including the highly anticipated Germany versus Portugal game starting from €599 per ticket. Ticketing expert Reg Walker, interviewed in the national media in January felt that World Cup fraud may be as high as £15 million.