When tickets for Adele’s 2016 North American tour went on sale on the morning of Dec. 17, most of the tens of millions of fans who logged onto the Ticket­master website to snag a seat probably suspected they were facing long odds.

What they may not have known was why. They weren’t just competing with one another: They were also facing a more formidable foe in the form of ticket brokers and unscrupulous speculators who would grab up most of the 300,000 or so available seats that Billboard reported sold out in less than an hour. After that, fans could purchase tickets only from brokers and other scalpers (those who resell tickets for a profit) on the resale market—at astronomical markups.

At the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan, for instance, tickets for a September show had a face value of $40 to $150. On the resale market, ticket prices ranged from $307 to $9,370—the latter for a seat close enough to shake Adele’s hand.

Of course, not all events have the white-hot appeal of an Adele concert, the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” or the Super Bowl. But consumers often face frustration trying to get reasonably priced seats even for less hyped concerts and shows because only 46 percent of all tickets are ever made available to the general public, according to a recent investigation of New York’s ticketing industry by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

The investigation, whose findings experts say are indicative of ticketing practices nationwide, revealed that 54 percent of tickets are reserved for the artists, production companies, venues, promoters, radio stations, and presale customers such as fan club members or people who carry a particular credit card. Schneiderman’s probe found that when the remaining tickets are finally released to the general public, profiteering can be rampant.


Read "Ticket Fee Frenzy" to find out why when you buy a ticket, the cost of the seat is only the beginning.
 

Using software called “bots” and inside information from industry contacts, some brokers quickly vacuum up tickets from primary sellers such as Ticket­master, then add in a huge markup and quickly list them on resale platforms including StubHub and TicketsNow. At a U2 concert referenced in the Schneiderman report, a single broker scooped up 1,012 tickets to a Madison Square Garden show in a minute (despite the four-ticket limit), and sold them for more than triple face value.

Bots enable resellers to buy tickets in bulk by automatically completing online forms faster than a human can do by hand, submitting multiple entries at lightning speed, and bypassing authentication codes on websites intended to deter such software.

There is no federal law prohibiting the use of bots, but 13 states have outlawed them and federal legislation to ban their use is pending in Congress. Though reselling tickets was once largely illegal, most states relaxed or eliminated their anti-scalping laws within the last decade or so for assorted reasons. Among them: the rise of internet ticket sales, the inability to enforce resale regulations, and the chance to collect taxes on sales.

John Breyault, vice president for public policy, telecommunications and fraud with the National Consumers League, says “legitimizing the resale market has been a win for consumers” because it has reduced the incidence of fraud. He acknowledges, though, that it hasn’t necessarily helped in terms of lower ticket prices. The best hope for consumers outraged when they see a ticket selling for many times its face value, he says, is a thriving legal resale market and federal anti-bot legislation with teeth.

Though scalpers hid in the shadows when reselling tickets was illegal, today they could be anybody—an individual with some spare tickets, a small-time speculator looking to make a windfall, or a professional ticket broker. Although not long ago there were limits placed on ticket markups, resellers are now largely free to sell tickets at whatever prices consumers might pay—which can be quite a lot. The average markup on tickets offered for sale on the secondary market was 49 percent above face value, though the margins sometimes exceeded 1,000 percent, the New York probe found.

New York State lawmakers in May renewed the current ticket-selling law, which expires annually; new pending legislation would stiffen civil penalties and impose criminal ones for bot usage. Meanwhile, there are two ticketing bills under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives, which would prohibit the use of bots and give the Federal Trade Commission enforcement authority. With significant reform unlikely to happen soon, how do you avoid getting gouged on ticket prices the next time you want to go to a ball game or take in a show?

Ticket prices for an Adele concert range widely
Ticket prices for an Adele concert range widely on the resale market.

Shop at the Source

The ideal way to get a good seat at a fair price is through the venue box office or the official ticket seller, which, for 80 percent of all live-event seating, is Ticketmaster. These strategies will better your chances with both:

Take advantage of presales. Presales allow select consumers (such as members of a fan club or people who carry a certain credit card) to buy tickets—usually by using a special password on the ticket sales website—before they’re offered to the general public. You can also get passwords and alerts to presales free of charge at ticketcrusader.com or by paying a small fee at presalepasswordinfo.com. Watch for credit card promotions, too. American Express, Visa Signature, and MasterCard offer some cardholders first dibs, preferred seats and unique access, and discounts to various events.

Create an account with Ticketmaster. You can register to receive information on upcoming events and ticket sales for your favorite performers, teams, and shows. It can also save you precious minutes when a sale starts by freeing you from having to enter login and payment information, during which time bots and more savvy fans can swoop in and grab your seats. Ticketmaster also has a free iPhone and Android app that provides notification about every presale and breaking news about added shows.

Consider visiting the box office. Tickets purchased at the box office may come with fewer fees, such as processing and delivery charges.

Shop familiar websites. Go only to established online sources such as the venue’s official website. Be aware of look-alike sites that fraudsters create to sell bogus tickets.

Buy fewer seats. The more tickets you want, the lower your chances of success—especially if you’re buying for a large group and want to sit together. Consider sitting apart from your companions: The odds of landing a great solo seat are often better.

Buying From a Reseller

Stick to the major players. In addition to StubHub and TicketsNow, established resellers include Razorgator, Vivid Seats, and ScoreBig, which all offer money-back guarantees in the unlikely event a ticket is a counterfeit. (Fake tickets are a potentially bigger problem if you buy from individuals on sites such as eBay or Craigs­list.) You can shop on individual websites or use SeatGeek, a search engine that scours dozens of resale sites. When shopping, you should also:

Compare ticket prices at different venues. When Bruce Springsteen played in the New York metropolitan area, seats on the resale market were far cheaper at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., than at either Madison Square Garden or Barclays Center in Brooklyn, said Will Flaherty, SeatGeek’s vice president of growth marketing. When Beyoncé was on tour, the cheapest ticket to see her at Citi Field in Queens, N.Y., was $140, and that was for a lousy seat. Compare that with the cost of seeing Queen Bey at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh a week earlier, where tickets on the resale market could be had for as little as $28; $140 bought a seat close to the stage, Flaherty said.

Remember that it’s all in the timing. SeatGeek’s Flaherty said that no matter the event, a better deal is likely to emerge the longer you delay your purchase (see “Patience Pays Off,” below). Optimally, the time to act is within 48 hours of showtime, according to SeatGeek’s statistics. “Tickets are perishable goods,” Flaherty explained. “On the resale market, the price typically decreases the closer you get to the event, though you might lose some flexibility, like the ability to get five seats together.”


Patience Pays Off

To see how ticket prices change as an event nears, we shopped for the best-priced tickets to two events on May 23: a Cincinnati Reds–Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game in Los Angeles and a Beyoncé concert in Minneapolis. For the ball game we started at the box office, then tracked ticket prices on the secondary market. For the concert we looked only on resale sites because the box office was sold out. We shopped for one seat, in the same general location, using seatgeek.com. Prices include all fees except for delivery.

An infographic showing different ticket prices

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the August 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.