Monday, August 9, 2010

Ticketmaster extorted $20 from me. I vowed to get it back and [eventually] succeeded.

Warning: This post is epic and long.

In early 2010, I joined the Iron Maiden fan club to get the best tickets possible for the Dream Theater/Iron Maiden concert in Saskatoon, SK, on June 29, 2010. I paid $380 for four tickets on my student VISA card, well in advance of the show. When I purchased the tickets, I only had the option of purchasing paperless tickets.

Fast-forward to the day of the show. I had completed my degree and my bank had sent me a new, "grown-up" VISA card. The card number had changed.

My party of four arrived at the venue, parked the car and got in line at 6:30PM. Doors opened at 6:15PM, and Dream Theater was starting at 7:15. The line outside the door was probably 200 meters long, moving slow.

By 7:15pm, we were barely standing inside the front entry, waiting to present my VISA for paperless ticket entry. Dream Theater had just started their set. So many people are having problems with paperless tickets, we stood in the entranceway for over 10 minutes. Progress was excruciatingly slow - it felt like one of those dreams where you can never finish packing your suitcase.

My credit card was scanned at the door, as per the paperless ticketing process. It was rejected (remember, my card number had changed). We were redirected to the box office. We moved from the front of the enter-the-venue line to the back of the box office line.

Dream Theater finished a song as I started talking to a woman at the box office. She asked for my government-issued ID for comparison to my order and my VISA, which I provided. She asked to see a printed order confirmation, and I replied that I didn't print anything because these are paperless tickets. I offered to bring up the exact-same email confirmation on my BlackBerry and that was refused (and refused a second time after I tried to clarify why). I was then informed that I would need to pay a $5-per-ticket fee to get into the venue, for a total of $20.

I asked what the fee was for, and was told, "to get into the show." I asked for clarification and was told, "if you want to get in, you need to pay this fee." Wow! That's extortion, and if it's ever happened to you, you know it feels terrible. If I didn't pay it, I'd forfeit $380 worth of tickets. Talk about pressure - the opening act was already well into their set, and we felt like we were out of options.

Reluctantly, I agreed to pay the fee. I asked (multiple times) for an itemized receipt and that request was refused; I walked away with 4 tickets and a credit card stub but no receipt describing the fee. My friends and I got back into the entry line, waited anxiously to get through the door, and made it to the concert floor by 7:40PM, half-way through Dream Theater's set.

I am a principled guy and I know that charding extra fees for paid-in-full tickets is illegal - Saskatchewan's Consumer Protection Act describes it as an "unfair practice." Bring ripped off so blatantly made me furious and I vowed to recover that $20 any way I could.

Recovery Attempt #1 - VISA.
A few days after the show (by the way, Iron Maiden was awesome), I collected a ton of documentation that supported my claim, and talked to my friends - they were willing to offer statements of support.

I phoned VISA. VISA loves to advertise cardholder protection and fraud protection and surely, I thought, they'll back me up. This will be the easiest recovery ever. Having paid in full for my tickets, VISA will protect me and my purchase from having additional after-the-fact fees charged.

Well, as it turns out, VISA doesn't believe that extortion exists. If you sign a receipt or enter your PIN, you're committed to that purchase, no matter what. I asked the rep, "what if someone was holding a gun to my head?" and got a snarky response, "well, maybe you should call the police."

I got angry and frustrated on the call which probably didn't help (lesson learned). The entire rest of this ordeal I focused on being as extraordinarily polite, patient, and respectful as possible. Sorry, VISA.

Recovery Attempt #2 - Ticketmaster Canada.
Every time you buy tickets with a credit card, Ticketmaster's national phone number shows up on your credit card statement, presumably to help settle billing disputes. I phoned the number and after getting transferred around for 20 minutes. I spoke to a very helpful and polite rep who found out that the fee was a "credit card swap" fee.

I suppose if Ticketmaster wants to charge a fee for everything, that's their business. But the fee wasn't advertised anywhere - on Ticketmaster's site, on any of my order confirmations, or posted at the Credit Union Centre. And knowing what the fee is in retrospect doesn't excuse the box office rep for not explaining the fee or issuing a receipt.

I disputed the fee with the national rep, and she said that she couldn't help me - I will have to settle the dispute with the Saskatoon box office. I made some notes and thanked her for her time.

Recovery Attempt #3 - Ticketmaster Saskatoon.
Before calling the Saskatoon box office, I printed a copy of the Consumer Protection Act at Staples for $15 and read the whole thing, front to back, just to make triple-sure I was in the right. I highlighted everything relevant and picked up the phone.

I left a message and a manager (who would not identify herself or provide a call-back number) phoned me back. She allowed me to explain my situation and I finished by saying that I should be refunded the $20 that was wrongfully charged at the door.

She told me a fantastic story - that she'd spoken to the box office clerk who recalled explaining the fee to me and remembered offering me a receipt. That was an outright lie and I informed her I had three witnesses who would say otherwise. Then, she said that it was not possible to issue refunds with their system. Err, right. It's gone from "won't refund $20" to "can't refund $20." I calmly, politely said that I am a principled guy and I am entitled to that refund, and was willing to pursue the matter in Small Claims Court - it would be cheaper for everyone, time-wise, to issue the refund now. She said "do what you have to do" and hung up.

Ouch!

Recovery Attempt #4 - Small Claims Court
This attempt took a lot of time and consultation, but to be brief: no-one can sue Ticketmaster in Saskatchewan Small Claims Courts because Ticketmaster is not registered as a corporation in this province. I talked to Small Claims, the Corporations Branch of the provincial government, and the Consumer Protection Branch and the consensus was that it would be complicated and expensive to file directly against Ticketmaster.

I could, however, file against the venue (the Credit Union Centre) in Small Claims, who utilized Ticketmaster's services.

Recovery Attempt #5 - Credit Union Centre
I checked out the Credit Union Centre's website, and lo and behold, they have a Director of Ticketing and Business Projects - which sounded exactly like the person I should be talking to.

I composed a detailed, polite letter of complaint to that person, outlining my experience at the venue and my attempts-to-date to recover the $20 fee. I wrote about how I see 6-12 events per year at the CUC, and how I was hesitant to file against the Credit Union Centre in Small Claims because I believed that it was Ticketmaster who was in the wrong, not the CUC.

I expressed my concerns over paperless ticketing in general and my negative experience at the box office. I also included a snippit of legislation from the Consumer Protection Act which I felt supported my complaint quite clearly. The only thing I explicitly requested in the letter was an acknowledgement that it had been received. The final letter was about 3 pages long, and I signed it "without prejudice".

Success!
On August 3, one day after I emailed the letter, the Director emailed me back, acknowledging he'd received the letter and was investigating. On August 5, he left a message on my voicemail saying that the $20 charge had been reversed, and that he'd like to speak with me on the phone about the situation, if possible.

I called him back that day and spoke with him. Right away, I thanked him for reversing the charge. He apologized for the situation, saying, "in my opinion, you demonstrated you were the individual who bought the tickets and you shouldn't have been charged that fee at all." I reiterated that it wasn't necessarily the fee, rather, the refusal of an explanation and receipt that really irked me, but the issue is resolved and we don't need to go over those details again. I thanked him multiple times and expressed my sincere gratitude that he actually took the time to investigate and resolve my complaint.

He asked me if I'd seen Circ du Soleil yet and offered me a set of tickets as a gesture of kindness. I declined, for two reasons - one, I had plans all weekend (family reunion) and two, the offer was very generous but with the apology and the refund I consider the matter fully and completely resolved (I wasn't complaining for the sake of a free show). I thanked him one last time and we ended the call.

On August 6, a $20 credit appeared in my VISA account.

Reflection

I spent far more than $20 in time and resources trying to resolve this issue, but money was never the point (nor was extra compensation, ie, declining the Circ du Soleil ticket offer). If you've ever had something extorted from you, you know that gut-wrenching feeling of in-the-moment helplessness and cosmic unfairness.

I think the key was finding someone who is proud of their work and/or organization. In this whole ordeal, no-one I talked to in traditional customer service channels (phone support for VISA and Ticketmaster, local box office managers) seemed concerned that a customer had a terrible experience - all I experienced was deflection and denial.

In the end, I received a perfect apology. The Director of Ticketing was genuinely concerned and investigated (and responded to) my claim seriously and professionally. When I heard the charge was reversed after two months of dead ends, I felt like a superhero - offering free tickets to another show as compensation goes above and beyond what I expected. Thanks, Credit Union Centre - I'll be back, for sure.

Lessons Learned:
  • If possible, avoid Paperless Ticketing like the plague. If you want to see any part of the opening act, arrive early, because the process is sloowwww.
    • If you can't avoid paperless tickets, try not to graduate or do anything that might prompt your VISA, MasterCard, or your bank to change your credit card number. If your card number does change, be aware Ticketmaster will use this as a chance to rip you off - best to call them and sort it out in advance. Don't let them talk you into paying a credit card swap fee. 
  • If resolving complaints with Ticketmaster is a dead end, complain directly to the venue. There's a better chance of encountering someone who likes their job, is proud of their venue, and will lend an ear to a polite, concerned customer.
  • The three "P"s of complaint resolution: Politeness, Patience, Persistence.