- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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It went down just like so many other fake ticket sales have gone down in the past.
Two tickets posted on Craigslist, a well-known choice of the unscrupulous scalper. Tickets to the Discover BCS National Championship for $1,000 each, a price that seemed too good to be true because, well, it was.
You always hear stories of people that got duped. But rarely do you get an inside look at one of these transactions.
It shows how the Internet has changed the game and how simply peppering people with questions can reveal the fraud.
This year, the Orange Bowl decided not to put ticket prices on the National Championship tickets to help schools flexibly price the seats to students or donors. After I discussed this on Twitter, I was contacted by a man named Paul Crowley, who believed he was in the midst of an alleged fake ticket transaction for the title game between Notre Dame and Alabama.
After we provided scans of the tickets to the Orange Bowl, who told us they believed the tickets were fake, Crowley obviously decided he wouldn't buy them. But to help me describe how such exchanges occur, he followed it through until the point where he'd have to meet the seller with $2,000 cash.
The Craigslist post was for two 50-yard line seats. One could expect to pay $2,500 apiece for these tickets, but this seller was offering a deal, complete with a very specific story.
He said his name was Chris and his wife's name was Susan. He said his wife's stepfather got four tickets to the game but wanted to sell two because two of the people he wanted to go with couldn't go. He volunteered even more on the posting, which has since been pulled. His father in-law, he said, was an alumni board member.
Crowley emailed his phone number to the man, who said his name was Chris Michaels. Crowley's phone rang quickly. The 36-year-old Notre Dame grad had a couple requests before he'd fork over his money, though. He wanted to see the front and the back of the tickets. It was a veteran move to ask for the back, as counterfeiters often don't put as much effort into the back.
Soon enough, Crowley was texted images of one of the tickets. That's when the first red flag went up. This is what happens next in their back-and-forth text messages, which were forwarded by Crowley to ESPN.com and appear exactly as they were received.
Crowley: "Thanks. But I thought you're posting said they were 142 row 11?"
Scalper: "Im sorry sir sect sect 140 row 10. I was actually looking at my wife's stepdad's seats right here. I'm actually selling the 2 sect 140 row 10 and giving the other two seats to my son and his buddie sorry."
(Note: The slight change in seat and ticket location meant a 50-yard line seat had all of a sudden become more like a 15-yard-line seat)
Crowley: "Okay. Sounds good. Just let me know where/when you would like to meet. I'm pretty flexible tomorrow."
Scalper: "Ok great it's actually a Citgo Gas station that's right down the street from where I work on wentworth/43rd. Its right off the Dan Ryan Expressway on the right hand side. The exit on the dan ryan is 56b, tomorrow around 2:30-3pm?"
The alleged scalper doesn't have a good sucker in Crowley. He's going to do his research. After looking at a picture of the tickets and comparing them with pictures he obtained from friends who had genuine tickets, he notices a few things. The back of the ticket isn't centered. The hologram looks off. The printing alignment is off ("row" and "section" compared to what is above it). The ticket says "No Refund. No Exchanges." Sophisticated ticket buyers know that the line is "No Refunds. No Exchanges." Crowley also thinks the perforated line looks off as well. Then he goes next-level. This bar code is 14 digits, he notices. The real tickets have 12 digits. This account number is 12 digits. The real tickets have 11-digit account numbers, he observes.
Crowley now knows he's not going to buying the tickets. He calls the Chicago Police Department, hoping that they could set up a sting so that another person doesn't get duped. Crowley says they told him to call when he is two blocks away from the gas station, something that Crowley didn't want to do given the area the meeting point is in.
The Notre Dame alum goes back to the seller one more time and asks him who his stepfather in-law is.
Scalper: "Name is Richard Ryans '79"
Crowley: "Thanks Chris, 3p tomorrow right? Did you say you work for US Cellular Field?"
Scalper: "Yes i work grounds crew for the Chicago Whitesox and i get out of work tomorrow at 2pm. The gas station is actually down the street from my home and i was going to walk."
Crowley: "Got it. But I thought you said you live in Wicker Park?"
Scalper: "My wife lives in wicker park. We haven't moved in together yet because of personal issues. Wow sir too much information dont you think?"
Crowley: "Chris -- One last question. Does your step-father in law know that you're selling the tickets. Just want to make sure it's okay."
Scalper: "Yes he does. He's actually in Miami now and we let him know that we were selling the tickets because of the expenses of the trip like hotel fees, food, and drinks."
Crowley was now ready for his next move. He contacted the real Richard Ryans, Notre Dame Class of 1979, through the online alumni network. Ryans, who is a founding member of the Black Alumni Board at Notre Dame, called him back from Maryland, where he lives.
Crowley said Ryans told him he, unfortunately, didn't get tickets to the National Championship Game. He doesn't have a stepdaughter. He doesn't have any relatives in Chicago. And he certainly has never heard of people named Chris and Susan Michaels.
For a posting that looked so promising, everything about it was now fraudulent. Crowley called the scalper back.
"He got very upset when I told them he was selling fake tickets," Crowley said. "He said he'd have to speak to his wife and call me back. When we talked the final time, he said that I must have not spoken to her father. That it had to be an imposter."
Scam artists have gotten smarter about the way they do business. They're willing to give more specifics like "Chris Michaels" did. Doing that certainly helps. They also make sure the transaction is done in a location that doesn't have a camera.
Ticket guys used to do their business in Starbucks, but the camera moved them away. They then went to gas stations to exchange the cash and eventually to bad gas stations that didn't have cameras.
We called the number Crowley gave us for Chris Michaels, which not surprisingly had a generic message recording. He didn't return the phone call. Maybe he was at US Cellular Field doing something for the White Sox.
Or maybe not. The White Sox told us that, to the best of their knowledge, there's no one by that name working on the grounds crew.