BusinessSeptember 25, 2021

Dodgy tickets, huge mark-ups – what is Viagogo really up to?


Offshore touts are trying to flog off expensive tickets to concerts all over New Zealand. And sometimes those tickets may not even exist. What can be done to stop it?

Adam Webb is hovering over his keyboard, frantically searching for information. He has multiple internet tabs open and fake credit cards laid out on the table in front of him. It’s just after 6am in London, and he’s fresh out of bed, only on his first coffee. But his fingers fly across the keyboard. He’s in the zone – and I don’t dare interrupt him. 

“Here’s one,” he says. “It’s a tiny little house in Dundee, Scotland.” Webb clicks his mouse, taps his keyboard, and gets another result. “Here are more tickets being listed by another company in Albuquerque, USA.” Another pause. “Here’s another one in Israel.” He looks up at me, staring back wide-eyed through a Zoom window, and declares: “It’s deeply suspicious.”

You’re probably wondering what’s going on. I am too. Webb contacted me after I wrote this story urging Lorde fans not to buy tickets for her upcoming New Zealand tour through Viagogo. VIP tickets for $1300 had appeared on the ticket resale site, yet Lorde doesn’t offer VIP tickets, and doesn’t charge $1300. Most of her summer shows will set fans back around $100. After an outcry, Viagogo removed them.

Tickets for Lorde’s upcoming New Zealand tour are available on Viagogo for much higher resale prices. Photo: Getty

Webb got in touch to let me know he was watching all of this closely. Based in London, his main job is in music publicity, but he spends his spare time running Fanfair Alliance, a not-for-profit organisation that educates ticket buyers and campaigns for major reforms. In the UK, the home of premier league football, ticket resale companies are big business, with several major players in the market.

Lately, though, Viagogo has been firmly in his sights. That’s because it’s constantly making headlines. You’ve probably heard about the company before. Perhaps you’ve bought tickets off the site. Maybe those tickets were fine, and you had a great night. Maybe those tickets were useless and you were left standing outside a stadium, a few hundred dollars missing from your pocket, listening to the applause as everyone else enjoys the show.

That happens regularly. Recent New Zealand shows by UK comic Russell Howard and local pop bigwigs Six60, as well as tours by the Van Gogh Alive exhibit and The Great Moscow Circus, all sparked headlines over fans buying overpriced tickets, some that they later discovered were “worthless”. 

Despite writing about Viagogo regularly over the past decade, I realised I didn’t fully understand how it operated. I asked Webb if he’d show me. “I’d be happy to,” he said. So we set up a Zoom call and dived in. He opened up multiple international versions of Viagogo, pulled out fake credit cards so he could pretend to buy tickets, and walked me through it. 

On its website, Viagogo calls itself “a global online platform for live sport, music and entertainment tickets”. It started in 2006, and operates out of London and Switzerland. A spokesperson told me: “A high volume of tickets are sold on Viagogo across the world every day and our platform exists to ensure that buyers receive valid tickets on time for the event, and sellers are paid.” Webb agrees that the company, like eBay, Trade Me, and Ticketmaster’s own secondary site, Ticketmaster Resale,  “connects buyers and sellers”. 

But that’s where the comparisons diverge, claims Webb. “In reality, Viagogo is dependent upon two things: one is Google advertising, so every time you search for tickets, they pay to be at the top of your search,” he says. “The second is the tickets are not sold by you and me, and they’re not sold by consumers.” Webb claims the vast majority of tickets sold on Viagogo are listed by large-scale ticket touts. “It’s a scalping machine, basically.”

Webb doesn’t stop there. He believes fake ticket listings can be widely found on Viagogo. To prove this, he starts examining listings for Lorde’s upcoming run of New Zealand shows – six outdoor concerts across February and March, including a headlining performance at Christchurch festival Electric Avenue. “If I Google ‘Electric Avenue music festival’ Viagogo will pay to top the Google search results,” he says.

Webb pulls up Viagogo’s ticket offerings for Lorde’s February 26 appearance and finds multiple listings, all from overseas-based sellers. Some of those tickets are priced at more than $1000 – 10 times the face value. “This is not someone who’s going to this event – this is a business,” says Webb. He types in the numbers for his fake credit card to locate the sellers. One was in Dundee, a mid-sized city in Scotland. 

Tickets for Shihad’s upcoming Auckland show were available on Viagogo before the official on-sale time. Photo: Getty

Lorde, says Webb, doesn’t like scalpers. “You can see it in her communications. She wants her fans to buy tickets, not weird companies from Scotland.” It’s true: in an email to fans announcing tickets for shows were on sale, she’d issued a veiled warning about scalpers: “You know the drill,” she wrote. “Good luck out there.” In London, Webb kept searching, and discovered “clumps of tickets” all at the same price. “They just look like clones. My guess is that these tickets don’t exist. I think they’re cloned listings.”

Webb has some evidence to support his suspicion. In August, Scottish website The Daily Record reported nearly $2 million in speculative tickets had been removed from Viagogo after a probe by the news outfit. Those tickets allegedly came from just one seller, based in Munich, who had listed 700 tickets alone for one Glasgow-based music festival. 

The Daily Record’s report also said this: “In another bizarre twist … Viagogo has said it will stand by another dubious seller, who used a false address in Dundee to list hundreds of tickets.” That, claims Webb, is the same seller listing tickets to Lorde shows in New Zealand. Is listing fake tickets even legal? “No,” says Webb. “It’s fraud.”

In the days that followed our chat, Webb’s words bounced around my head. I decided to keep an eye on Viagogo for tickets being sold for other local concerts. I didn’t have to look far. On August 4, tickets for a tour by rock act Shihad were due to go on sale through Ticketmaster. I’m a fan, and I was planning on buying two of them to the band’s November 27 show at the Powerstation. 

A few hours before the official on sale time, I checked Viagogo. They were already listed. Six general admission tickets that weren’t even on sale yet were on offer for $282, and another six were available for $286. Confused, I waited a few hours, and at midday, purchased two legitimate tickets from Ticketmaster for around $80, plus a bit extra for processing and handling fees. 

As confidence returned to the industry, and major artists began confirming post-pandemic tours, I kept checking in. After I missed out on general admission tickets to Tyler, the Creator’s July show at Spark Arena through Ticketmaster, I wondered if Viagogo might have them. They did. “Great! Tickets for Tyler, the Creator are available,” the website told me. They were more than $400 each. I didn’t buy them, instead claiming a legitimate seat, albeit in the nosebleeds, for $140. 

Earlier this week, tickets for Dua Lipa’s show in November 2022, went on sale, again through Ticketmaster. When I checked Viagogo just a few hours after the official on-sale time, dozens of tickets had already been listed. While I searched, a message popped up: “A customer bought four tickets to Dua Lipa in Auckland an hour ago,” it said. Whoever that is, I feel sorry for them. 

I asked Webb to look into the same shows and he found tickets were being listed for sale by companies based in Albuquerque and Finland. “I’d question why two pretty untraceable businesses in the US and Finland are targeting shows in New Zealand,” he said. “There’s definitely something fishy going on.” I asked him to elaborate. If you bought those tickets, would you get actual tickets? “Who knows?” Webb replies. He thinks the seller would take your money, attempt to buy much cheaper tickets, give you those, and pocket the surplus. “It’s the perfect crime, in a way, because you’ve got no risk.”

In a statement, Viagogo says all sellers are required to confirm they have the right to sell their tickets. “As sellers are not paid until the buyer has attended the event, there is no incentive for people to list a ticket that doesn’t exist,” a spokesperson said. Speculative ticket selling was not permitted on the site. “If a seller is found guilty of speculative selling they will face disciplinary proceedings and will be blocked from using our platform.”

Viagogo guarantees all ticket sales, the spokesperson said. Full refunds were rare. “No more than one per cent of all tickets sold worldwide on Viagogo in 2019 had any issues.”As for those Shihad tickets, the spokesperson pointed out the concert’s pre-sale had started the day before I bought my tickets, on August 3.

You don’t have to look far to find out what the local music industry thinks about Viagogo. I spoke to one local ticketing outlet that said it wasn’t just big arena acts by international artists being targeted by scalpers. It found itself a regular target for shows held at small venues around the country. The spokesperson gave one example where a punter had spent $700 on four tickets through Viagogo which should have cost just $44 each. The concert wasn’t even sold out. For an upcoming show by Chelsea Wolf, the original $60 ticket price had been raised to $247 for those purchased through Viagogo.

The promoter for Lorde’s tour, Brent Eccles, let it all out in an interview with Stuff over those fake VIP tickets. “It’s just a scam,” he told the news website. “Chances are you won’t be able to get in. You’ll have to buy another ticket and if it’s sold out, well, look at the situation that you’re in.”

Dua Lipa
Tickets for Dua Lipa’s Auckland show in November, 2022, were being offered on Viagogo hours after going on sale. (Photo: Getty Images)

Callum Mitchell, the promoter for the Electric Avenue festival, told me Viagogo had been an “ongoing issue” for years. “We’re powerless to do anything about it, other than warn people about Viagogo in our advertising where we can,” Mitchell said. “Unfortunately, the Commerce Commission, the courts, and the government in New Zealand seem powerless. People who use this site will continue to get ripped off, plain and simple.”

It’s not all bad news. The Commerce Commission has engaged Viagogo in court, and achieved results. Mitchell believes Viagogo’s reach and domination is diminishing. “I don’t think it’s as bad as it was a few years ago. There has been so much media coverage of their dodgy practices that most people are now aware that there’s a high chance you’d be buying a fraudulent ticket if you purchased it through Viagogo,” he says.

Webb agrees. He thinks more government regulation would help, along with artists banning ticket resales over face value, and ticketing moving to a mobile-only market. He compares it to the days of Napster. “It’s just like with music piracy. If you make it easy to share music, like Spotify or Apple Music, The Pirate Bay goes out of business because you’ve created a better system,” he says. “Ticketing is the same.” His hope is that one day his tireless campaign against the company will be over. “Viagogo is a voodoo market that doesn’t have to exist.”

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