Richard Marks: Ethical Ticket Exchange Will Be Sadly Mist

18 Sep 2011

Credits: arbyreed@flickr

The sad demise of Scarlet Mist – the ethical ticket exchange – represents another victory for the bad guys and leaves  concert and festival-goers without a key service they had come to rely on.

The problems of ticket returns, refunds and exchanges are complex and the interests of promoters and fans sometimes conflict.  For the promoters, a ticket refund can represent a potential lost sale, hassle and inconvenience. To fans  equally, a ticket returns also represent hassle and inconvenience.  Box offices are usually unhelpful. The relatively high fees demanded by the websites ‘for real fans’, together with the unwelcome attention of touts and even police at the event, all make it difficult to get refunds, even in part, for spare or unusable tickets.

Scarlet Mist offered a utopian ideal. “We don’t need the Scalpers, Whores or Ticket Touts – we can do this ourselves” was our mantra.  Free to use, with a nag screen asking for a charitable donation, it offered the opportunity for the music community to help itself.  It cut out the touts and middlemen, directly introducing buyers to sellers with the sole stipulation that tickets be sold at face value or below.

Two thousand users a day logged onto the site, knowledge about which spread largely through a combination of  word of mouth,  press and blog coverage.  Users fell in love with the ethos and karma of the site – it restored their faith in human nature and it represented a blow against cynical profiteers.  Even the name of the site – Scarlet Mist – suggested an ethereal warm and mysterious presence, with a hint of anger at the forces of greed.

But in thwarting the evils of the touts, Scarlet Mist fell victim to an even greater evil – the blatant thieves and fraudsters.   We started to receive reports from users who had sent money in good faith to a seller, only to find that the supposed seller had disappeared without trace.  The stories broke our hearts, as we watched the service that we had developed for the good of the community become invaded by these crooks.

The original intention had been for users to meet one another face-to-face, but the fraudsters demanded payment in advance, usually by bank transfer.  We struggled to find a way to protect our ticket-buyers.

We partnered with an escrow company who offered to make the transactions more secure.  This involved a fee, on which we took no commission, but many preferred to take the risk rather than pay it.

We maintained a log of the names, addresses and bank details of known fraudsters, which we posted to all buyers, and we posted it on our Myspace blog so that it could be picked up by internet search engines.

We used cookies to block the machines of known fraudsters, and we scanned all the tickets to try and weed out the dodgy ones.

We also put victims in touch with one another so that they could share Crime Reference Numbers and we liaised closely with the police on individual cases.  Both the police and the courts are far more interested in regular and persistent offenders than the odd one-offs.

The plain fact is that ticket fraud is just too easy to perpetrate, and the risks of getting caught are too slim.  Victims are dissuaded from reporting the crime, and the police are hamstrung by logistical difficulties in proving the intent to defraud.  Persistent offenders can reoffend again and again, sometimes not even bothering to change their pseudonym.

The banks who launder the money are truly limp and spineless.  A policeman working in a regional CID unit with an interest in these crimes, told me of his frustrations.  In one particular case that he had worked on, a fraudster had opened two accounts with the same bank, which he used for taking money for non-existent tickets.  Not only did the bank refuse to cooperate with the police, they also allowed him to open a third account in the same name.

Eventually, the pain and misery generated by thieves outweighed the good feeling that Olly and I had from running Scarlet Mist.  We never ran it for profit (it barely covered its costs) but we wanted to play our part in helping the community of music lovers that we are a part of.  We do not feel able to continue running it whilst our users are put to such risk.

The problems of ticket returns have not gone away.  Music fans still need a way of getting refunds on tickets they cannot use.  They do not want to make a profit from the sale, but neither do they want to pay exorbitant handling or financial charges.  Neither do they want to use websites, such as the AIF Ticket Trust, that solely handle sold-out events to protect the interests of the promoters. I am not sure that these conflicting interests can ever be reconciled.  An amicable and workable solution that suits all the parties still remains as elusive as a puff of red mist.

Richard Marks, Founder, Scarlet Mist

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