If tickets are like gold dust, the middle men glitter

The event's a sell-out - but there's always someone who can get you in. Emma Lunn on the risks of buying outside the box office
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The Independent Online

U2 or Usher, Wimbledon or a West End show, getting your hands on the hottest tickets in town can be a tortuous and expensive task.

U2 or Usher, Wimbledon or a West End show, getting your hands on the hottest tickets in town can be a tortuous and expensive task.

The kerfuffle surrounding early availability of 2006 World Cup tickets and the, so far, exclusive right of Mastercard holders to buy them underlines the difficulties in which fans can find themselves.

At present, you can buy World Cup tickets only if you carry a Mastercard credit card, have a German bank account, or are willing to pay up to £35 for an international money transfer.

The Which? consumer group has challenged Fifa to play fair over ticket sales for the tournament and make it easier for everyone to buy them.

But at least more World Cup tickets are set to be released at a later date. A sell-out usually leaves fans facing a choice between two evils: buying from a tout or paying through the nose for a seat via an online auction site or resale ticket agent.

In theory, consumers are protected by law, under the Price Indications (Resale of Tickets) Regulations 1994. All ticket outlets, including resellers and secondary agents such as ticket booths and touts, must inform customers of seat location and make it clear if a post or pillar will obstruct your view. However, recent investigations by the Office of Fair Trading found a number of ticket booths and touts were marking up prices by as much as 600 per cent and failing to provide clear information.

To avoid hefty add-on fees or being sold sub-standard seats, try to get in early and buy either direct from the venue, from ticket agents named in the official event advertising, or through members of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (Star). The members of this self-regulatory body must clearly identify the face value of tickets and any upfront fees, as well as highlighting terms and conditions such as transferability, your rights in the event of cancellation and viewing restrictions.

Although it is impractical for many people who don't live in big cities, buying direct from the venue is usually the cheapest option. Telephone and online agencies will charge a booking fee - typically a couple of pounds.

Companies that are members of Star include See Tickets, Keith Prowse Tickets and Visit-London. A full list can be found at www.s-t-a-r.org.uk.

If you are unhappy with the service you have received from one of its members, Star has a complaints process that can offer a refund. It will investigate any complaints, and offending companies can receive warnings, be fined, suspended or even expelled.

When the supply of tickets from official sources dries up, fans may be tempted to turn to alternative outlets. One of the most popular is the internet, through dedicated sites such as www.soldouteventtickets.com or getmetickets.net. These sites buy tickets for resale from a network of direct sources.

However, buying in this way carries a financial risk. If you pay way over the odds for a ticket and the event is later cancelled, only the face value will typically be refunded.

Jonathan Browne at Star emphasises that you should expect to find a big mark-up if you buy on the internet, and warns of a "huge rise" in what he calls "e-touting".

However, a spokesperson for soldouteventtickets.com, a US-based company, denies it is an e-tout and describes its role as enabling an exchange between the buyer and seller.

"We buy from season-ticket holders or people with a spare ticket they want to sell," he says. "We don't bulk-buy tickets."

Although they went on sale some three weeks ago, weekend camping tickets costing £110 plus a £6.75 booking fee for this summer's V festival in Chelmsford - where Oasis are the headline band - have already sold out. Last week, though, these particular tickets were being offered on soldouteventtickets.com for £280.45 - more than twice the official price.

When buying from a secondary ticket website, use a credit card for extra protection if things go wrong. Under the Consumer Credit Act 1974, both the card issuer and the ticket supplier are liable if there is any breach of contract - as long as the ticket price exceeds £100.

Alternatively, the online auction site eBay may yield a golden ticket, but you will have to trust the seller's integrity.

Nevertheless, if you arrive at the venue and find that the "fabulous front-row ticket" you have been promised is actually miles from the stage, you may be able to get at least some of your money back.

EBay has a scheme to resolve disputes by putting the seller and buyer in contact with the mediation service Square Trade.

If this fails, most items sold on the site come under the free eBay standard purchase protection programme. This covers items up to £120 (minus a £15 processing fee).

For many who have searched high and low for a ticket, the tout on the street is a final throw of the dice. But if you discover your ticket is fake or a poor deal, there's no comeback; the tout will probably be long gone.

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