Thursday, May 31, 2012

An expensive lesson about buying tickets online

I make a lot of mistakes.  Sometimes they are small ones and ultimately insignificant, but sometimes they turn into horrible, stressful nightmares full of regret.  This is one such story.  I made a mistake.  I bought concert tickets from a private individual online.  A jerk of a private individual and I'd like to tell you her name, but for now, I'll wait and see how the Paypal dispute turns out before I unleash full rage onto the internet.  For now, let's just make this a learning experience.

The funny thing is, I have bought and sold tickets to events online through many different venues and I have never had a problem.  I haven't kept track, but I would estimate between 50-75 times I have either purchased Caps tickets on eBay, or sold tickets on craigslist or Stubhub.  I never had a problem until two weeks ago.  This is pretty remarkable considering when I was desperately broke I had a very clever system in place that would allow me to see Caps games.  I would find someone online who was selling a block of 6 or 8 tickets at a price far below face value.  I would buy all of them, keep two for myself and resell the rest of them on Stubhub or Craigslist at face value and end up getting my money back and keeping the two tickets.  This way I was able to sell them for more than I paid for them to get all of my investment back since I underpaid so much.  It took a lot of work, but I saw quite a few free games, including the NCAA Frozen Four in 2009.  In retrospect, this could have very easily blew up in my face if I bought 6 or 8 tickets from a scammer and then turned around and resold them, assuming they were legit.  That would have come back on me.  In retrospect, I suppose I have been lucky thus far.

On May 12, 2012, my good ticket karma ran out.  I wanted very badly to go to the M3 Music Festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion.  In fact, I was certain that if I didn't get to go, I would probably die.  It was a life and death situation that I find tickets.  I searched the internets carefully for VIP tickets.  VIP tickets were more expensive, but they  came with extra perks, the most attractive of which was a separate VIP area with a bar and restrooms separate from the rest of the venue.  The festival ran from 11am to 11 pm.  I didn't want to spend it waiting in line for drinks or for the bathroom.  I spent so much time online trying to find deals on VIP tickets.  Everyone was asking for more than face value to try and make money on the tickets, and I could barely afford them at face value.  I made so many lowball offers to people who never responded to me.  Finally I found someone selling two-day festival passes (Friday and Saturday) and I emailed her and told her that I only needed tickets for Saturday and made her an offer.  She waited until the last minute, but accepted my offer.  She had to overnight the tickets from Ohio, so on Thursday afternoon I sent her payment as soon as I received her invoice and she sent me a tracking number for the FedEx shipment arriving Friday.  I was very excited.  I was going to M3!!

Of course I know the risks of buying tickets online but I felt secure knowing that Paypal has policies in place for this sort of thing.  I have always used Paypal, eBay and Stubhub with confidence because I know I have recourse if the tickets are fraudulent.  However, I never went so far as to consider how much of a huge pain in the ass it would be to go through the dispute process.  And even then, I always expected that the law would be on my side.  If I was denied entry from a ticket, then how could they not refund the money?  Oh yeah, that whole "My word against hers" thing isn't as cut-and-dry when you consider there's someone else providing false information to avoid having to give your money back.  I may have had a false sense of security.

So, what happened was - on the day of the Festival, my friend and I handed our tickets at the door and the person scanned them, looked at the error message on her device, and then sent us to the box office to find out why we couldn't get in.  Then, we waited at the box office.  And waited.  And waited.  The person behind the counter had to call other people over to look at the tickets, then point at a computer screen, then talk to more people, before she finally explained, "The person who ordered these tickets called and canceled the order and then reinstated it.  When she did that, she invalidated the bar code.  These tickets are no longer valid."  She did not mince words, she said, "It's a scam.  People sell the original tickets, then cancel them and reissue them so that they can sell them again."  She was apologetic and told me to dispute the payment and try to get a refund.  I asked for written confirmation that I was refused entry, she said they didn't have any means of doing that, but to hang onto the tickets because if Paypal investigates and calls the box office with the bar code number, they will confirm that the ticket order was canceled on Friday at 10:30am.  Paypal knows that I paid her on Thursday afternoon, so she canceled them after I had purchased them, case closed- as far as I was concerned.  Rather than turn around and go home in defeat, I spent another $125 at the door for non-VIP tickets that were not as good and when I got in, I immediately went on my phone to the Paypal site and disputed the transaction.

The short version of what happened for the rest of the day is: She denied my dispute and said she had no idea why the tickets didn't work.  (I have since discovered that this is false.)  I gave her my phone number and we texted back and forth as she said she was trying to call the box office and trying to resolve the problem.  My phone battery died so I ended up in a tent for an hour with my phone plugged into a charger so I could continue texting the seller and trying to iron out the problem.  That was probably another mistake.  I missed at least four bands by typing emails, writing disputes and sending text messages.  Through it all she alleged she had done nothing wrong and had gone "above and beyond" in trying to resolve the problem and call the box office.  As it turned out, I was still able to claim the VIP benefit because she had not resold the tickets, so I was able to see the last three concerts from the VIP seats.  I also got the free t-shirt and b.s., which was less important than the good seats and the short line to the bathroom.  As far as she is concerned, she doesn't owe me any money back because I sat in her seats at the end of the show (the ushers don't scan barcodes, they just looked at tickets with no way of knowing that they had been reissued.)

It is still going through the investigation process.  Yesterday I received an email from Paypal stating that I had to provide documentation from a third party confirming that they had confiscated the item.  "The document must be on letterhead and include the name, address, and phone number of the individual, business or organization so that we may contact them if necessary."  Failure to provide the requested documentation will result in the claim being cancelled.  They thank me for my patience regarding this matter.

I spent an hour on hold with the ticketing agent today (Wednesday) before reaching someone and explaining the situation.  He looked up the account, talked to a supervisor, and was extremely sympathetic but told me that privacy concerns prevented him from giving information to anyone except the customer who had purchased the tickets.  So, he couldn't even tell me over the phone, let alone write something up in letterhead.  After more time spent on hold with Paypal, I explained it to someone there and she recommended that instead of the requested information, I send a scanned copy of the tickets along with all of the information that I had.  So I did.  All evidence indicates that the seller tried to cancel the tickets for Friday and leave them for someone else at Will-call (since I only purchased Saturday) but it was considered one 2-day ticket, so intentionally or not, she invalidated my tickets and claimed that she had no idea how such a thing could have happened and refused to refund any of my money.

Now I'm stressed out about it again because it appears that everything favors the seller in this case.  The only third-party who can confirm that I was denied entry is protecting their customer's privacy.  The reason I   am still awake at 2am on a Wednesday is because it has just occurred to me that I may not get any of this money back and she may have completely screwed my concert and get to keep all of my money.  I provided all of the information I have to Paypal and now I just wait.  I should receive a final decision by June 8th.

If you have read this far without losing interest, perhaps you have gone through the same thing yourself.  Feel free to leave a comment and share some of your hard-earned lessons.  After all, the point of this is to let other people learn from my mistakes.  It's a shame that I had no problems for so many years and now this one huge debacle will make me hesitate before buying or selling tickets online ever again.  I think 99% of the time, if people selling tickets seem legit, they probably are.  But let me tell you, that 1% is a huge pain in the ass!  Stubhub provides buyers with a toll-free number to call them on the spot if you are denied access to a venue, so I think that any problems with tickets purchased through them would be resolved more quickly.  The lesson to be learned for all other transactions - get a phone number.  If you buy tickets on craigslist, insist on talking to them on the phone first, that way you can immediately call them if you are denied access.  If I had been able to get in touch with her by phone, I probably could have gotten things ironed out before I shelled out more money at the box office.  Still would have been a pain in the ass, but not nearly the debacle that it ended up, and it would have been resolved much more quickly.  I don't know if eBay has the same resolution process as Paypal, but I assume it is similar.  So, make sure you have contact info and try to pay with a credit card if you can, that way you can always dispute the charge with your credit card company.  Oh, and don't ever buy anything from... ******   You know, if Paypal denies my refund, I will probably add her information to this post.  I would hate to see her try to pull this again, and I don't even want to think about how mad I'm going to be if she gets away with it and gets to keep all of my money after screwing up the festival that I wanted to see so badly.  I wanted to go to M3, but I didn't intend to buy tickets twice!

Oh, by the way, M3 was awesome - from what I saw of it, anyway.  It's a shame that so much was overshadowed by all of this drama with the tickets.  I feel especially bad for the friend that I invited because he entrusted me to buy the tickets and ended up having to deal with the drama.  I refused to take any money from him for the ticket since I had made such a huge mess of it from buying online.  But, I unplugged my phone and stopped dealing with it in time to catch the last song in one of my favorite band's set.  The good thing is, this has made me so excited for the M3 Festival next year.  I can't wait to buy my own tickets from the venue!  That was an expensive lesson learned!