Ticket touts with links to organised crime could make millions of pounds from scams surrounding the London Olympics, the head of a special unit set up by the Metropolitan Police to combat the problem has warned.
Tickets for next year's Games do not go on sale until 15 March but officers of Operation Podium have already made 32 arrests from nine separate operations into touting in the UK. They have also assembled a list of thousands of known touts through observing recent events such as the 2010 World Cup finals and Take That concerts.
Detective Chief Inspector Nick Downing said yesterday that his team of 36 officers would not be able to eliminate what he described as a notably British problem, but was determined to make it difficult for touts to operate. A range of measures will be used, including powers under the 2006 Olympic and Paralympic Games Act. Under the act, unlicensed re-selling of Olympic tickets is illegal, unlike many other sporting events, and can result in a £5,000 fine. The unit can also use anti-fraud legislation – some of the arrests already made have been for fraud and money laundering – which carry a possible custodial sentence.
Chief Inspector Downing said: "We are not talking about low-level criminal activity. From our learning so far we believe there are links with organised crime. Let's be honest, we are not going to stop it all, but we will make it as hard as possible for them to operate. They have business models, and we are now looking to break down that model.
"Our research is that the British ticketing criminal is one of the most prevalent in this market place. It's not a proud export."
British touts have become familiar figures at sporting events around the world. Operation Podium was set up last year and officers were in South Africa for the World Cup. Since then they have been working on identifying suspected touts and have built up a list that contains "hundreds, and moving into the thousands" of names, Chief Inspector Downing said.
With London hosting the world's biggest sporting event next summer and an estimated 6.6 million tickets going on sale next month, the prospect of large-scale touting, in particular through the internet, is of real concern to Locog, the London organising committee headed by Sebastian Coe.
Lord Coe said yesterday: "This is going to be the greatest show on earth and we don't want it to become the greatest scam on earth."
Tickets are on sale for six weeks from 15 March to 26 April. The organisers hope that by making it a ballot once the window is closed, and not first-come, first-served, it will prevent a scramble for tickets that then pushes punters towards illegal suppliers.
Officers from Operation Podium are working with Locog to clamp down on unofficial websites. Hundreds of domain names have been bought up, sites closed down and Locog's site will carry a website-checker for users to confirm the veracity of any sites offering tickets for the Games.
Organisers are also in discussions with sites such as eBay to prevent tickets being resold at more than their face value. Ticketholders can re-sell at face value through a Locog site if they cannot make it to events.
The Adlington family: 'Scam left me so upset and angry'
Rebecca Adlington's parents were among the thousands of people who fell victim to ticket scams during the 2008 Olympics.
Kay Adlington paid Xclusive Tickets, a secondary ticket agent, £1,100 for two poolside tickets in Beijing, but received nothing. Xclusive then went bust, owing more than £3.1m. The Adlingtons made it to Beijing with the help of British journalists to watch their daughter win two gold medals.
Kay said: "I was so incredibly upset and angry... it's difficult to police the internet but something has to be done to stop these people."