Canadian 'superscalper' shows difficulty of fighting ticket bots in Ontario

As Ontario legislation that bans the use of ticket scalper bots works its way through the legislature, new reporting by the CBC reveals the complexity — and the stakes — of the global scalping market.

Warnings pile up that provincial legislation may not stand up to global network of ever-evolving bots

Ontario legislation introduced in the fall aims to protect consumers from scalper bots — computer programs that rapidly buy sought-after tickets and then resell them at a profit. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

As Ontario legislation that bans the use of ticket scalper bots works its way through the legislature, new reporting by the CBC reveals the complexity — and the stakes — of the global scalping market.

The newest face of the issue is Montrealer Julien Lavallée, revealed last week to be the man behind a multi-million dollar scalping operation capable of purchasing rafts of sought-after tickets almost simultaneously.

Born in part out of the frustration of fans unable to get tickets to the Tragically Hip's 2016 farewell tour, Ontario introduced legislation this fall to combat the kinds of bots presumably used by Lavallée to vacuum up tickets and resell them at a profit.

The legislation, folded into a broader consumer protection bill, seeks to ban scalper bots, limit ticket re-sale prices to 50 per cent above the face value and require that the original price of the ticket be displayed to the prospective purchaser. 

Local enforcement, global transactions

But Steve Tissenbaum, a professor at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management who studies mobile commerce, wonders at the ability of an Ontario law to take on scalpers who may or may not be working inside Ontario and who routinely hide their identities by using proxy IP addresses.

Tissenbaum told CBC Toronto he "didn't really see any government really having the scale or the time to really monitor, enforce and prosecute" a law like this one.

"Technology is just advancing so quickly. There's so many layers to the internet — it's a losing battle." 

An outcry from fans shut out of buying tickets to the Tragically Hip's farewell tour last year prompted the Ontario government to move forward with new legislation. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Speaking about the bill on Oct. 19, PC MPP Jim McDonell, who serves as the critic of government and consumer services, made a similar critique of the provincial ban. 

"In a global marketplace, where goods, services and money travel along fibre optic cables and the internet, this kind of limitation is a band-aid solution at best," he said.

Comparing scalper bots to "hydras," McDonell said that anyone "with a will to profit from the inflating ticket prices will find a way to bypass this legislation."

Evolving technique

Lavallée himself provides a case study of the rapid-fire adaption of scalpers working online. 

Reg Walker, a U.K. event security specialist, has watched him refine his methods since expanding his ticket-buying operation to the United Kingdom a few years ago. 

Early on, said Walker, Lavallée was "very easy to spot given that he was using his own name" as well as the names of friends and family.

Julien Lavallée of Quebec has a lucrative scalping empire — and ever-evolving methods. (Facebook)

"About a year later, he started branching out… every evolution in his activity makes it increasingly difficult for him to spot," he concluded.

Bhupesh Shah, a professor of marketing and digital media at Seneca College, said the technology behind bots is moving fast.

"With artificial intelligence, it's getting to the point where a lot of the things that we're trying to do can be circumvented," he said.

Government says focus is Ontario businesses

A statement from Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi acknowledged the challenge of enforcing the ban — but said the focus will be ticket businesses here in Ontario. 

"Though it may be difficult to enforce our rules on someone operating behind a computer screen a world away, we have the tools to enforce our rules right here in Ontario with the businesses selling tickets to Ontario fans." 

The legislation, he said, addresses bots in a "practical way" by focusing attention on "ticket sellers and resellers operating in Ontario." 

Online ticket marketplace StubHub has previously said it supports efforts to tackle bots, but that it values the ability of users to buy and sell tickets at prices fans deem appropriate, free from regulatory interference.

Last week, CBC reporting confirmed that Lavallée is one of Stubhub's "top sellers," a special category reserved for people who sell more than $50,000 worth of tickets a year. 

Warnings of ticket black market 

Stubhub told the government during consultations that more regulatory burdens on the ticket market will drive sales off mainstream platforms that provide certain protections — a point echoed by McDonell, who said that price caps on established platforms will drive buyers and sellers to "unregulated channels." 

McDonell also raised the possibility that bots are less responsible for vanishing tickets to sought-after events than is sometimes assumed.

"Reports for some events highlighted that only a fraction, sometimes less than a quarter, of overall tickets were put on sale to the general public while the remainder were distributed among sponsors, promoters and other presale avenues," he said.