Summer event season is also scam season—prime time for fraudulent ticket sellers to ply their trade. Knowing how to spot them can save you from a night of disappointment, not to mention saving you a whole lot of money.
"When you have thousands of people who are all trying to get in to see a big-name act like U2, or Beyonce, or Major League Baseball playoffs, for example, chances are you're going to have scalpers out there who are going to try to defraud consumers," said John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications, and fraud at the National Consumers League.
Of course, the fraudsters can strike any time of year and in any number of ways. Beth and Larry Charbonneau of Florida found that out the hard way in 2012, after they submitted the winning bid of $12,000 in a charity auction for two tickets to the Grammy Awards, complete with a star-studded weekend in Hollywood. The auction was put together by Donald Mitchell "Ski" Johnson, a jazz saxophonist, unabashed self-promoter and creator of what he calls the "Jazz for Life Foundation." Johnson is profiled on the next episode of CNBC's "American Greed."
Of course, there were no Grammy tickets, which Beth only found out after traveling all the way to Los Angeles with a friend. They also found themselves stuck with the hotel bill.
"You keep telling yourself like, 'No, this isn't really happening,'" she told "American Greed." "Maybe there was a snafu with the tickets. But then you realize no, this is a big con."
A jury eventually convicted Johnson of a single count of wire fraud in a similar scheme defrauding a Big Brothers Big Sisters organization in Montana. Authorities allege he repeated the scam across the country, bilking consumers and charities out of tens of thousands of dollars. But Johnson disputes that claim.
That's the ticket
"It's really important when (consumers) are buying tickets that they do it safely," said Breyault.
Of course, the best way to do that is to purchase from the primary seller — the venue or promoter staging the event, or their designated ticket seller such as Ticketmaster. But because events can sell out quickly, and relatively few tickets are ever available to the general public in the first place, we often turn to the secondary market. And that demands extra caution.
Never buy a ticket from a scalper on the street, for example. And if you are buying from an online ticket broker, make certain that the site contains an explicit guarantee of a refund if the tickets turn out not to be valid. The reputable firms all have such language.
"So if for some reason something goes wrong, the ticket doesn't get you in the door, then you have a strong recourse," Breyault said.
Beware of websites that purport to be official outlets for a particular stadium or concert venue. Scammy look-alikes abound, some of them created just to steal your credit card information. To make certain the site you are looking at is legitimate, look carefully at the web address.
"Check that URL," Breyault said. "If you have any questions, call up the venue itself and ask them what's their official website, to make sure you're buying tickets actually from the box office and not from a reseller."
Once you receive the tickets, check for any restrictions on whether they can be transferred or resold. In the case of Ski Johnson, he was promising Grammy tickets that were nontransferrable — even if he could deliver them, they would not be valid. In other instances, you could find yourself with tickets that become worthless if for some reason you cannot make it to the event.
Above all, use a credit or debit card to purchase your tickets. It's one last level of protection.
"If the ticket ends up not getting you in the door, you can always dispute that transaction with your bank and hopefully get that money back," Breyault said.
Check emotions at the door
Like any fraudster, ticket scammers rely on your emotions to rip you off. You want to see your favorite star or sports team so badly, you will do just about anything to get in. The scarcer the ticket, the bigger the risk.
"In-demand events are the ones that tend to attract the ticket scammers," Breyault said. "There's a limited supply, and so people who think that they're getting a ticket may not stop and do their due diligence to make sure that the ticket is actually legitimate and is going to get them in the door."
One way to foil the fraudsters — and maybe save yourself some money — is to avoid the temptation to try and buy tickets the moment they go on sale.
"Waiting until closer to an event to buy your tickets can be nerve-wracking, but it can also be a way for consumers to get tickets to an event they otherwise wouldn't or to save money versus paying a high markup on the secondary market," Breyault said. "That's because brokers or other entities who get allocations of these tickets often find out that they aren't able to sell them ahead of time."
If you are willing to stay calm and take a little risk, you will often find that the venue has held back a block of tickets to release just before the event.
Another way to gain an edge — and possibly a line on tickets that may never be released to the general public — is to join your favorite artist's fan club, though that typically involves a fee; or sign up for the mailing list of your favorite concert venue.
The National Consumers League has been pushing for stronger laws and regulation about ticket selling, after New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, in a 2016 report, found what he called a "fixed game" when it comes to ticket sales.
The investigation found that more than half of tickets to major concerts in the state are held back from the general public, reserved instead for promoters, credit card companies and select insiders. Meanwhile, ticket brokers employ illegal "ticket bots" — specialized software that instantly scours the market, scooping up prized tickets before the public even knows that they exist.
"This investigation is just the beginning of our efforts to create a level playing field in the ticket industry," Schneiderman said at the time.
But for now, it is up to ticket buyers to be smart.
Ski Johnson was sentenced to five years probation for his crime. A federal appeals court has ordered the trial judge in Montana to reconsider his order of just $5,600 in restitution after the government argued it was far too low.
Meanwhile, Johnson is still in business, though the website for his "foundation" now acknowledges that it is not a charity, but a "for-profit corporation."
See how authorities say they finally caught Ski Johnson red-handed…on the red carpet, on an ALL NEW episode of "American Greed", Monday, July 31 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC.