'The whole system is rigged': An insider exposes what stands between you and the ticket you want

CBC Marketplace investigated how bot software often beats the general public to grab the best seats so resellers can peddle them to fans at a markup.

Resellers look for every advantage to snatch up tickets quicker than fans

Ken Lowson, a former bot operator based in the U.S., calls the whole system 'rigged.' (CBC)

There are a lot of hot tickets out there that any fan would feel lucky to get.

But your chances of scoring a seat — let alone a good one — may not have much to do with luck at all.

Ken Lowson, a former bot operator in the U.S., told CBC's  Marketplace he once had the capacity to buy 15,000 tickets in two minutes with the push of a button.

"The whole system is rigged," he said.

Marketplace investigated how bot software often beats the general public to grab the best seats so resellers can peddle them to fans at a markup.

Shortly after, Ontario's attorney general announced the government will table legislation to make bots illegal.

​'Any little tiny advantage'

Bots are a software-based way to skip the line, designed to snap up prime seats within milliseconds of a concert or sporting event going on sale.

Ticket brokers, many of which operate legitimately, buy up tickets and resell them, often at a profit. The ticket reselling industry has many operators, from large companies to smaller outfits.

Lowson says he had a simple objective: "We would look for any little tiny advantage we could find that would cut just any amount of time off."

When tickets are sold on a first-come-first-served basis, those tiny advantages can automatically push fans to the end of the line. 

Ticket bots are currently legal in most jurisdictions, including across Canada, but ticket sellers, such as Ticketmaster, typically ban their use under their terms of service.

But that doesn't stop bots from getting through.

"Our system was set up to hit 50 shows in one hour," Lowson said.

Ken Lowson, a former bot operator based in the U.S., says bots buy up many of the best seats for concerts and sporting events. (CBC)
Lowson says he bought and resold thousands of high-demand tickets over more than a decade, making an average of $25 per ticket, which added up to millions of dollars.

He says it was years of "890 mini-improvements to a system" to make sure he could "get tickets faster."

The FBI pursued Lowson for fraud and he settled the case out of court, agreeing to pay $1 million US to the Department of Justice.

Who can stop the bots?

Lowson says spotting bots would be easy if artists or ticket sellers were serious about cracking down.

"Take your credit card records and look at any card that bought more than two shows in different states in the same hour" and you've found a bot, he said.

He says promoters of the events benefit when the shows sell out quickly.

"They say … 'Oh, we sold out, Beyoncé's sold out in 10 seconds.'"

"This big press thing happens when they get all this free PR, 'Oh this show's so hot.'"
Joe Berchtold, Live Nation's chief operating officer, estimates bots and brokers bought two-thirds of the tickets for the Tragically Hip's farewell summer tour. (CBC)

Tour promotion giant Live Nation, which owns Ticketmaster, says it's not that easy.

"Every year we block about five billion bots trying to attack our Ticketmaster system," said Joe Berchtold, Live Nation's chief operating officer.

"But even if we're 99 per cent effective, that's 100 a minute that get through our system."

Berchtold estimates bots and brokers bought two-thirds of the tickets for the Tragically Hip's farewell summer tour, leaving many frustrated fans having to pay huge markups on reseller sites like StubHub.

"Probably a third of the tickets went to bots, another third went to brokers who were just like fans, pounding away at the keyboard, but better trained, more aggressive at it, and maybe a third of them went to fans," he said.
Joe Berchtold, Live Nation's chief operating officer, says even when Ticketmaster is 99 per cent effective at stopping bots, 'that's 100 a minute that get through our system.' (CBC)

Ticketmaster enforces ticket limits as one way to try to stop bots from buying huge blocks of seats. It also flags individuals who make a large number of ticket purchases for multiple events.

But bot operators circumvent those restrictions by carrying out multiple transactions using dozens, sometimes hundreds, of credit cards. They also use multiple aliases to trick the system.

Some jurisdictions, like New York state, have passed legislation outlawing ticket bots.

Ontario would be the first province in Canada to pass a similar law.

The trouble is many bot operators are based outside North America, which makes enforcement more challenging.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway smash hit Hamilton, recently helped New York Senator Chuck Schumer announce a proposed federal bill that would levy heavy fines on anyone caught using a bot.

Comedian Louis C.K. is also fighting back. He told fans that any ticket to his shows found on a resale site would be immediately cancelled.

Inside the broker business

The broker business is worth an estimated $8 billion based on the value of tickets they sell every year.

The number of brokers, and how many of them use bots, isn't known, but collectively they snap up millions of tickets for concerts, comedy shows and sporting events.

They trade secrets at an annual summit in Las Vegas.

Rafi Agalar, a ticket broker based in California who says he doesn't use bots, says brokers have to find every advantage.

"If it's your full-time job, you'll make sure you do everything you can to get as many tickets as you can." 

Another broker, Eric Garland, who also says he doesn't use bots, says being faster than regular fans is key.

"Maybe a lot of fans are feeling it's not fair that they're not getting tickets. But you just gotta be quick, you gotta be ready to go."

  • Based on a Marketplace investigation by Kathleen Coughlin, Andrew Culbert and David Common


David Common covers a wide range of stories for CBC News, from war to disrupting scams. He is a host with the investigative consumer affairs program Marketplace, and a correspondent with The National. David has travelled to more than 85 countries for his work, has lived in cities across Canada, and been based as a foreign correspondent in the U.S. and Europe. He has won a number of awards, but a big career highlight remains an interview with Elmo. You can reach David at, Twitter: @davidcommon.