There is a dangerous online underground scam this holiday season, and frankly, I learned, all year round.
Every year, I see the kickoff to holiday time during the Sunday night football game preceding Halloween. No, not Travis Kelce dancing to a Taylor Swift song.
It’s the commercials.
Never mind that we haven’t even dressed the kids yet to go get candy. The holidays officially began two weeks ago, according to retail outlets like Walmart and Kohl’s.
So in the rush of holiday excitement, I got in the spirit. No, not to order Swift’s South American tour tickets, but four tickets to a December Nutcracker show at Center City’s storied Academy of Music for myself, my mother, and my two daughters.
This ticket purchase fired up a lesson that even as a reporter, I’d never learned. Ever.
There are scammers out there. We all know that. But not the obvious ones like “We are processing your Norton AntiVirus renewal for $576, click here to dispute it.”
Or the “Thank you for your insurance purchase from Best Buy, your card will be charged $300.60. Click here if this is not you.”
No, there is an even more dangerous online underground scam this holiday season, and frankly, I learned, all year round. And it’s not scalpers on the street. It’s something much more computer-click friendly, and more insidious.
I wanted to write this as a holiday warning since this is the time of year we often attend special ticketed events, or buy tickets as gifts for loved ones and friends. This Internet rabbit hole represents the dregs of ticket sellers: the invisible third-party sellers.
I’d heard about it and thought: I’ll never fall for this. I thought I was well-versed in ticket scams. Pearl Jam and other bands rebelled about Ticketmaster prices. Buy at your own risk. And forget about Ticketmaster issues with bands who’ve protested and artists who’ve refunded money.
One fateful day in October, I went online and thought I’d clicked on Ticketmaster. The site was at the top of Google. The site was, in fact, Tickets-Center.com. By the time I was looking in real-time at a map of the Academy of Music, I’d chosen four seats that were modest but good, in the balcony. I immediately received a notice that I had 10 minutes left in my cart to purchase the tickets. That’s normal for most ticket sellers. I hit purchase.
Then the nightmare began.
I was charged immediately by Tickets-Center.com, according to my bank account. And I waited. I got an email saying my order was confirmed. Two hours went by. No tickets were delivered to my email, despite my prior experiences with places like Ticketmaster, where tickets are delivered within a few minutes to 20 minutes.
I made the mistake of calling the overseas customer service phone number. The woman had no record of what show I’d purchased, yet told me that to try to get a refund, I’d have to be transferred to an automated line and accept a $100 Walmart gift card.
Now my reporter red flags were flying, but I think we can all agree they were flying two hours too late. She hung up on me then, and within one minute, I received a call from a South Beach Miami number in the official 305 area code, from a guy wheeling and dealing, asking me “Miss, why don’t you want the Walmart gift card and all you can do with it?”
“I did not order that,” I said. “Is this Walmart? I just would like my money back, please.”
He hung up too, as his engine revved in the background. Oh boy. I thought I bought tickets in Philadelphia.
Then I looked online. Oh, the horror. Not only were they not members of the Better Business Bureau, but it was worse. The company is in Delaware – hello tax-free. It is also just a post office box with no recourse to a U.S. phone number or customer service. And the reviews were piled one on top of the other:
Customers never got tickets. They couldn’t reach a person. They called two weeks before the event in a panic and no one could help them or provide the tickets. I’m not trying to be dramatic, or traumatic, but someone missed an Ozzy Osbourne concert. Someone missed a Guns N’ Roses reunion. Ok, that’s traumatic. We can leave it at that.
So, it’s been two weeks, and I don’t have tickets. I don’t think I’ll ever get them, according to online posts from music and theater lovers who had anniversaries, birthdays and other occasions ruined.
I’ve since alerted the AARP, who took a report about it to alert members not to use the website. The Better Business Bureau does not have the company as a member, so no dice there. I also alerted the FTC online and filed a complaint.
One recourse you could have, depending upon your bank, is to file a “merchant claim” to try to get bank administrators to help recover the money. Banks won’t treat it as a fraud or stolen card charge because guess who entered your credit card information into the system? You.
I tried reaching the Kimmel Cultural Campus, which handles the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Kimmel Center and the Academy of Music, to ask how third-party ticket sales affect their operations. Not surprisingly, they declined to comment.
So now, I’m waiting for a bank claim resolution, but I realize all of this could have been avoided had I been more vigilant about websites.
All I’d wanted was to take my mother and daughters to see “The Nutcracker,” and to see the sugar plum snow falling, just as a gift.
I’m assuming that in Miami’s South Beach today, someone is not in the holiday spirit. Instead, there’s a Grinch who doesn’t know what sugar plum snow, or any other kind of snow, looks like this holiday season.