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Frustrated Taylor Swift fans battle ticket bots and Ticketmaster

Swifties fight for ticket reform law
Swifties urge Congress to protect fans as some say "bots run wild" on ticketing platforms 05:01

U.S. lawmakers are giving fans a spark of hope they could buy event tickets at more affordable prices. Several senators told CBS News they would support federal legislation that limits the profit sellers can make on the ticket resale market. The idea stems from growing calls for a crackdown on resale practices, which derailed the 2022 Taylor Swift Eras Tour ticket rollout.

People can make thousands of dollars in profit by selling tickets at inflated prices on the secondary market to consumers who missed out on the original sale. Prices are driven even higher by resellers who use automated software called bots to bulk-buy mass quantities of tickets at once.

Complaints about these systems came to a head during the November 2022 presale to Taylor Swift's Eras tour.

The botched Eras Tour sale

Ticketmaster, the platform responsible for selling most of the Swift tour tickets, blamed the massive bot attack for crashing its website when the Eras Tour ticket presale launched on Nov. 15, 2022. The site received 3.5 billion requests that day, which caused the company to temporarily suspend sales and made it harder for fans to acquire face-value tickets.

Countless fans who had registered to receive presale codes struggled to buy tickets. Almost immediately, Swift tickets popped up on the secondary market. Some Taylor Swift fans paid as much as 70 times the original selling price for seats; many were unable to get tickets at all.

Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour - Mexico City, Mexico
Taylor Swift performs onstage during the Eras Tour on Aug. 24, 2023. Hector Vivas/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management

At a Senate Judiciary hearing in January 2023, the president and chief financial officer of Ticketmaster parent company Live Nation Entertainment, Joe Berchtold, accepted responsibility for the botched sale but blamed high traffic and cyber-attacks for the failure.

Outlawed bots, little enforcement 

The Better Online Ticket Sales Act, known as the BOTS Act, passed in 2016, made it illegal for ticket buyers to use bots to circumvent online ticket restrictions, or to sell tickets purchased using bots on the secondary market. It also gave the Federal Trade Commission authority to enforce the law. The FTC, however, has only used the BOTS Act to take law enforcement action once, against three New York ticket brokers, in January 2021. The agency said the defendants will pay $3.7 million in civil penalties.

While the FTC said it "remains committed to enforcing the BOTS Act," the agency confirmed it has not announced any additional BOTS Act cases since.

FTC data obtained by CBS News shows the agency has received 105 complaints about BOTS Act violations since 2017; the majority were received last year.

"The FTC has let the bots run wild," Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said in a 2022 op-ed. "Their inaction opens the door for scalpers to make secondary markets the only option for normal consumers."

Lawmakers are now circulating about a half dozen pieces of new legislation that would strengthen the BOTS Act. Blackburn and Sen. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico are sponsoring the Mitigating Automated Internet Networks for (MAIN) Event Ticketing Act. Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are sponsoring the Fans First Act.  

Swifties meet with lawmakers
Taylor Swift fans sit down with Representative Bill Pascrell (D-New Jersey) about strengthening laws to protect consumers following the Eras Tour Ticketmaster debacle. Ash-har Quraishi/CBS News

A cap on resale

To discourage the use of ticket bots and protect consumers from having to pay exorbitant prices for live events, lawmakers in the Australian states of New South Wales, West Australia and Victoria limited the profit incentive by passing laws that make it illegal to resell tickets for more than 10% above face value.

"[The laws] mean that scalpers and platforms that enable scalping can be held to account," said a spokesperson for NSW Fair "[The laws] mean that scalpers and platforms that enable scalping can be held to account," said a spokesperson for Fair Trading, the government agency that administers consumer protection laws in New South Wales.

Violators face a maximum fine of $110,000 for a corporation or $22,000 for an individual. 

NSW Fair Trading said it conducted 14 investigations in 2023 following complaints from consumers about ticket reselling. Since the law was passed in 2018, the agency said it has issued more than $40,000 in fines.

Klobuchar's Fans First Act does not include a cap on ticket resale profits, but she told CBS News she'd consider new legislation that would include it.

"I'm very open to that idea," Klobuchar said. "I just had to get what I could in an agreement right now, and that is just basic consumer rights." 

Lujan told CBS News he would support the cap, as well.

"I'm open to many of these ideas we've seen work in other parts of the world, he said. 

CBS News asked Ticketmaster if the company would support federal legislation that would put a profit cap on ticket resale in the U.S. 

"We operate in many countries that have similar laws, and we are all for universal industry solutions," said Kaitlyn Henrich, spokesperson for Ticketmaster Corporate Affairs "If Congress could pass a law that, put that across the entire industry, we'd all be on a level playing field. Short of a universal law like that, we think the next best thing is letting artists decide the terms for their tour."

"We think giving [artists] more control over how their tickets could be resold could help solve the overall problem," Henrich said.

The Coalition for Ticket Fairness, which lobbies on behalf of ticket resellers, opposes new limits on ticket resales.

"While that sounds good in theory, the reality is resellers act as a check on the power of Ticketmaster and other primary sellers, by providing options," said CTF Executive Director Dana McLean in an email. "When there are 20,000 seats and 300,000 people who want them, legislation can only do so much.  The best policies encourage competition and transparent pricing." (Full statement here)

Fans take action  

Jennifer Kinder, a single mother and personal injury attorney from Dallas, Texas, represents more than 350 fellow Taylor Swift fans in separate lawsuits which accuse Ticketmaster and Live Nation of fraud, price-fixing and failing to protect fans from bots. 

Kinder recently set up meetings between her clients and numerous congressional staff members and lawmakers, hoping to build momentum for the stalled proposed legislation.  

"If we, arm in arm, can't effectuate change, then who can?" Kinder asked. "Who's left to do it if Swifties can't?" 

Lead plaintiff Julie Barfuss traveled to the Capitol from her home in Utah.

"I think we'd like to come back again and hopefully just keep advocating for these bills and for change as it goes forward," said Barfuss. "That's our next step on two fronts — obviously still the lawsuit, but we will also be back here in D.C."   

Kinder client Jennifer Wilkins of Oakland, California, said it's not about getting a payout -- it's about changing a system she believes encourages ticket resales. Wilkins pointed out that's partly because Ticketmaster operates its own platform on the secondary market, which is called "Ticketmaster Verified."       

"I feel like we got cheated," said Wilkinson. "Ticketmaster can profit twice from these tickets. When bots or when people released tickets secondhand, Ticketmaster gets a fee — a portion of the sale price of the ticket, in addition to the fee that they collected the first time they sold the ticket. So, I'm thinking they don't really have much incentive to change this system that they have." 

Behind the scenes with a former botter  

Bots aren't only used to buy event tickets. 

"The idea is you're looking for any product, whether it's sneakers, whether it's consoles — anything that can go up in price because so many people want it," said Mitch Davies, a former "sneaker botter" from Australia.  

Davies spent years programming bots to attack e-commerce sites to buy up mass numbers of limited-edition athletic shoes.    

"We were taking thousands of these pairs at every release," he said. "After that, we resold them. So, you're basically buying these shoes for $100, $200 and selling them for five, six times the price."  

According to the online fraud protection firm DataDome, between 2015 and 2016, one botter was able to snatch up 30,000 tickets to the Broadway show "Hamilton" and more than a thousand tickets to a U2 concert. Each bot attack lasted less than 60 seconds. In another case, a malicious bot bought 520 Beyoncé concert tickets in just three minutes.  

Davies said the Eras Tour attack presented what botters considered a perfect opportunity, where low supply met unprecedented demand.  

"[When I heard what happened] I thought someone just made a lot of money," Davies said. "Someone's bot worked exactly how they wanted to."  

Ticketmaster responds   

"We are dealing with bots in the billions every single day and it's just exponential growth," Ticketmaster's Henrich said.

She said the company invests heavily to fight off bott attacks which are fueled, in part, by the low initial ticket prices set by artists.

"The reality is we work on behalf of venues, teams, artists," she said. "They're setting the terms of their ticket on sales. Artists could charge the tippy top price for their tickets tomorrow, and the resale scalper problem would disappear overnight." 

Henrich believes most artists don't want to do that.

"They're trying to foster a long career," she said. "They want a broad fan base, and to do that, they want to keep their tickets as accessible as possible."  

Ticketmaster talks about fighting bots 08:20

CBS News emailed representatives of several artists including Taylor Swift, Bad Bunny, Doja Cat and Pearl Jam to ask about the resale issue and got no response. 

Ticketmaster substantially ramped up their spending on federal lobbying during the last two Congresses. See the change in the chart below; here's a link to explore a larger version of the chart 

Cybersecurity solutions  

Most bot use is legal and can make life easier for companies and consumers. Chat bots, for example, help with customer service requests when a live agent isn't available; other bots scan websites for copyright violations.  

While former botter Mitch Davies didn't break any laws when he used the automated software to buy up limited edition sneakers for resale, he said he's now trying to be part of the solution. He helps companies fight bad bots as a data scientist with Bay Area cybersecurity startup Arkose Labs.  

"Having all the knowledge that I have garnered over the years, we can create these different fingerprints or behavioral metrics," said Davies. "Understanding how humans browse through a website, how they check out, it's very distinct how a human does things on a computer." 

Along with Davies' expertise, Arkose uses artificial intelligence and other tools to identify and neutralize automated bots that try to attack websites for clients including Microsoft, OpenAI, Roblox and Expedia.  

"If we think it's automated, we challenge it," said Arkose Labs CEO and founder Kevin Gosschalk. "And that challenge is a way of forcing the bad actors to have to do an action of some kind."   

How a cybersecurity firm battles bots 08:33

One tactic is to require website visitors to solve more complex CAPTCHA puzzles that require advanced reasoning to prove an action is being performed by a human and not a bot.   

"Our strategy is to go after the ultimate goal of them making money," Gosschalk said. "We want it to be more expensive than their profit margin. If we can do that, then they're out of business." 

Editor's note: A previous version of this article said Eras Tour tickets were sold on Ticketmaster's resale platform. Ticketmaster says it did not, and is not, participating in ticket resale for U.S. dates of the Eras Tour.

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