On Sunday, January 3, leading up to the Carolina Panthers' last regular season game, a man I will call "Dee" (by his own request) stood on a corner of Graham Street and watched as hundreds of Panthers fans came streaming toward him.
One would think this would be a more-than-welcome sight for a ticket scalper like Dee, but the sea of Panthers jerseys meant something else to him.
"I don't see any Buccaneers stuff in this crowd," Dee said as he waved valuable parking passes to passing cars and yelled, "Tickets!" to the folks on foot. "If you get a lot of people coming out for the other team, you know it will be a good day. Panthers fans can be cheap sometimes."
It was an hour from kickoff and the anxiety was starting to grow for Dee. He had paid $800 for a stack of tickets from a PSL-owner (personal seat licenses; how Panthers sell season tickets) and was hoping to turn a profit on them, but hadn't yet sold a single one.
- With the playoffs in town, ticket sales can be big business outside of Bank of America Stadium. (Photo by Jeff Hahne)
Police directing traffic on Graham Street joked with Dee that he wasn't holding his sign reading "I Need Tickets" up for long enough and to keep it up. The officers were obviously familiar with him, as he's been standing near that corner selling tickets since the Panthers began playing in Charlotte in 1996.
Technically, the sign itself is a violation of the city's panhandling ordinance and state law prohibits people from selling event tickets for any more than $3 over face value, but the police have bigger concerns than whether Dee turns a buck.
The recent success of the Panthers has made fans in Charlotte a target for people who want to profit off them in more criminal ways, as officials have seen a drastic increase in counterfeit tickets turning up in Charlotte recently.
In the lead up to any given Panthers home game, fans lose tens of thousands of dollars buying tickets online and outside of the stadium that they can't tell are fake until they reach the gate. By that time, the sellers are long gone, or at least posting up elsewhere around the city.
Members of the N.C. Secretary of State Counterfeit Trademark Task Force (CTTF) have been dealing with counterfeiters on the street at an increasing rate over the last seven years, but said the Panthers' rise in popularity from this year's near-perfect regular season record has brought expert counterfeiters from across the country, and the problem has been more prevalent than ever.
During this year's game against the Green Bay Packers, played at Bank of America Stadium on November 8, police said activity peaked. At least 300 counterfeit tickets were confiscated throughout the day, either found by police on the street or taken from fans who were turned away at the gate. The CMPD estimates that to be about a $60,000 loss total, but CTTF agents don't think that's all there was.
"The Panthers organization won't tell us an exact number. I don't think they want that number out there," CMPD officer and CTTF agent David Tropeano says. "Even our officers down there at the gates don't know the exact number. We know there are a ton of them. The Dallas game last year was close to 400 and the Packers game was close to that."
Multiple attempts to reach someone in the Panthers organization for this story were unsuccessful.
Not only has the number of counterfeits gone up this year, but the quality of the fakes has improved as well, making it hard even for CTTF agents to figure out whether they're holding a real or counterfeit ticket. What's made it even more difficult is that most football fans these days just print a PDF version of their ticket as opposed to the hard copy tickets printed by the Panthers organization. But even with hard copy tickets, counterfeiters are becoming more skilled, and each week has turned into a detective's game in which agents try to look for ways the counterfeiters may have slipped up.
- The men pictured are all wanted for questioning by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in regards to allegedly selling counterfeit tickets. The men, all photographed by people who told police they were sold bad tickets, are innocent until proven guilty, but it’s safe to say you should steer clear of buying playoff tickets from them. If you have any information about any of the suspects in the above photos, police ask that you call Crime Stoppers at 704-334-1600.
"It's something different every time," Tropeano said.
For example, the Jan. 3 game against the Buccaneers was "flexed" from its 1 p.m. kickoff time to a 4:25 p.m. kickoff by the NFL a week in advance. That Sunday, counterfeiters in front of the stadium were hawking tickets with a 4:25 kickoff time printed on them, despite the fact real game tickets were printed well before the game was flexed. Police zeroed in on the mistake and confiscated any tickets that said 4:25 on them.
"There was one game a little while ago where we were tipped off by a guy who said that some tickets going around were actually last year's ticket and someone just changed the date and the team," Tropeano says. "The ticket had Greg Olsen, but he had a winter hat on; a ski hat. Well, in the real ticket, he didn't have a hat on. (The counterfeiters) were using the same graphic as last year with the ski hat and that's how we knew which ones were fake. You have to wait until the day of the game to figure out what the differences are going to be."
Sometimes, the puzzle isn't as hard to solve. Before the December 13 game against the Atlanta Falcons, a local scalper contacted CTTF agents with a tip about one of the less sharp counterfeiters you'll hear about. The scalper was cruising Craigslist looking for cheap tickets to turn around, when he thought he had a hit. He asked the seller to send him pictures of the tickets to make sure they were legitimate. He received pictures of multiple hard copy tickets for a game against the Atlanta Falcons and the "Carlina" Panthers. The CTTF took it from there, and agents met the seller at the EpiCentre, where they arrested him.
"You'd be surprised at how many people still wouldn't have seen that on game day," Tropeano said.
Not all counterfeits are that easy to spot, however, and many remain unrecognizable even to a trained eye.
"We used to tell people if you're going to buy a ticket on the street, go up to the ticket office just to see what a real ticket looks like and then you'll know when you go back out on the street what a real one looks like," said Tom Bartholomy, president of the Better Business Bureau of Southern Piedmont. "You can't do that anymore because the counterfeiting is so good. You could be holding a real ticket right next to a counterfeit ticket and not be able to tell them apart."
The BBB focuses mainly on tracking online scams and counterfeits, and officials there have seen a troubling rise in both as the Panthers' popularity has grown. As on the street, the Packers game was a peak time for counterfeits bought online this year, perhaps only overshadowed by the Monday Night Football game at Bank of America Stadium against the Indianapolis Colts on the previous week.
"We haven't seen counterfeit activity like that in a few years, at least," Bartholomy says.
Social media sites like Facebook and private vendor sites like Craigslist have made it easier for individuals to buy and sell tickets. It's also made it easier for buyers to get ripped off, paying for tickets sometimes weeks in advance and having no way of confirming whether they're real until game day.
"Online it's like the Wild, Wild West," said Janet Hart, a representative of the BBB.
Bartholomy recommends that ticket buyers who are looking online use sites that guarantee their tickets, such as TicketMaster or TicketsNow. StubHub not only guarantees their tickets but posts a representative outside of each game or event to help anyone having trouble. RazorGator makes sellers provide a valid credit card number, which is then charged for the price of replacement tickets in the event that a buyer's ticket turns out fake.
"The highest risk way of buying a ticket is off an individual on an unregulated online site," Bartholomy said.
The law regulating how much a ticket can be resold for does not apply to online transactions, but officer Tropeano said that law is not enforced on the streets anyway.
"Every venue across the country — whether its hockey, golf, baseball, whatever it is — they're all out there. Everyone knows you can buy tickets on the street," he says. "We're at the point where I don't care if you want to pay $1,000 for a Knights ticket. If you're that dumb to pay $1,000 for a $12 ticket, that's fine, that's on you, as long as you get a legit ticket."
The BBB and CTTF alike are stepping things up in the lead-up to the playoffs, expecting a surge in counterfeiting activity, especially if the Packers return to Charlotte.
"With so many tickets already being reserved for season ticket holders, less than a 10 percent supply can be sold to the general public," Bartholomy says. "The secondary market is pretty strong for the upcoming Panthers game. The StubHubs are playing the supply-and-demand game, and that shows what people are willing to pay for a ticket. The counterfeiters watch that as well. They'll look, and if this game's getting a lot more action than the Arizona game and a lot more fan activity, they're going to print out more of those and try to sell those because the demand is that much higher."
At Creative Loafing's press deadline, many tickets for the upcoming game were selling for between $200 and $300 on StubHub, but some were as high as $7,300.
The CTTF will put in a request to Raleigh for more manpower during playoff games, and Tropeano expects to have between 15 and 20 agents on the ground around the stadium that day, including agents with the Department of Homeland Security and Alcohol Law Enforcement. Some will be in plain clothes.
They'll also be scouring the grounds for people selling merchandise that infringes on copyright laws, another crime on the rise around the stadium. During the last playoff game in Charlotte, against the Arizona Cardinals in 2015, the CTTF took $4,000 worth of merchandise from sellers who weren't properly licensed.
Just as with ticket counterfeiters, Tropeano says most of the people caught selling fake merchandise are from out of town. During that Cardinals game, Tropeano and fellow CMPD officer and CTTF agent Jesse Morton issued 18 tickets for selling fake merchandise, all of which were to people from either New York, Atlanta or Columbia, South Carolina.
"There are people who have been out there on game days since 1995, and those guys have a business. They pay the insurance, they're paying all the stuff that they need to pay in licensing fees, they're paying their taxes, they have receipts to do what any legit business or storefront would do," Tropeano says. "There's a cost to that, but these other guys are walking around with a bag of shirts. They go make shirts in a basement somewhere, and then come to Charlotte, and that's hurting people's businesses here."
I interviewed Tropeano two weeks out from the Panthers' first playoff game, and he said he and Morton were already aware of one group of guys who had showed up from Las Vegas to sell merchandise outside of the stadium.
In the search for fake tickets, police will continue to turn to Charlotte-area scalpers like Dee for help identifying the guys who may have just showed up from places near and far with money signs in their eyes and fake tickets in their pockets. Locals are rarely arrested for counterfeiting, but the police are constantly dealing with out-of-towners.
"We see (the legitimate scalpers) all the time. We see them at Hornets games, we see them at the Knights games. Those guys are always here and they're legitimate. But knowing who isn't (legitimate) is hard," Tropeano says. "Most of the guys that we deal with, we already know. They're pretty good about saying, 'Hey, here are my tickets.' They'll show them and then they'll point out some of the other guys that are legitimate or, if they're not, they'll know. They can tell pretty quick. There are just so many people. There's 80,000 people going to a game and 20,000 other people just hanging out tailgating and whatever else, it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack as far as who's legitimate and who's not."
Morton calls the local scalpers "our guys," perhaps without even realizing it. Morton explained how counterfeiters ruin business for legitimate scalpers, sometimes turning them into suspects if they buy extra tickets from a dishonest dealer.
"Some of our regular guys will buy from some of the guys from out of town, and they end up buying counterfeit tickets that they go and sell to somebody else," Morton says. "We had an example at a Hornets game where one of our regular guys ends up selling one and of course the lady comes running right back out and she's angry and he's still standing there because he feels like he hasn't done anything wrong. I went and verified and we confirmed that two of the four were counterfeit and the guy that sold it to her reached in his pocket and said, 'Here, I'm sorry,' and handed her two real tickets. Those guys are not trying to get over on people, they're trying to do their job."
Dee says he has unknowingly bought and sold counterfeit tickets in the past, and he resents the criminal element that gets mixed in with his hustle.
"From the outside looking in, a lot of people see the guys selling tickets as these low-lifes; these black guys running around selling overpriced tickets, holding signs, but it's not like that," Dee says. "I know guys out there that include a former school principal, investment bankers, brokers, real estate guys. I am a former military officer, myself. There's an array of different professions and they selected to sell tickets as a way to make money, some of them are retired and this is what they do. But then you got guys out there that may have two strikes selling drugs and if they go back to selling drugs they are going to get 20 years. There are guys like that, those elements are out there."
Morton and Tropeano have been working recently to legitimize the scalping game as they've seen it grow into a bustling but unregulated game.
"The Panthers have been here for 20 years," Tropeano says. "For the first 17 years nobody really did anything. Now they're getting good, and now it's getting to be a problem. We took the stance that we're not going to go cold turkey and say, 'Nope, this is done,' but we've got to amend it."
Currently, any food vendors or people selling flowers in the Congested Business District (CBD), which encompasses Uptown, need to register with Center City Partners in order to sell on their assigned corner. The two agents hope to include an addendum to the CBD that would allow ticket scalpers to sell anywhere within the district after registering with the city and paying an annual fee. The plan is still in the beginning stages, and the agents hope to break it in at smaller venues like nearby BB&T Ballpark before implementing it for Panthers games during next season.
Similar programs have been successful in Pittsburgh, Nashville and Indianapolis.
"We're trying to put together a system where you have to register to be a ticket vendor; where they're given a lanyard and a card that will say, 'I'm a vendor with the city, I'm registered, my tickets are good,'" Tropeano says. "That's something that we've asked all these legit guys, 'Would you be willing to register with the city and pay a fee basically and know that we're not going to mess with you?' and they say they would pay it right now. Because then someone sitting there with a big orange tag around their neck, he's good, but that guy over there who doesn't, now we can go after him."
Dee says the plan sounds intriguing to him, but he hopes CMPD and the city bring in scalpers like himself for feedback to make sure people aren't pushed out.
"The whole key to that is that it doesn't cost too much and make it exclusive to people with a whole lot of money and brokers who can afford it. I also hope they don't restrict the area that you could sell in, but otherwise that sounds really good," he said.
As for his luck in that last hour before kickoff of the Tampa Bay game, Dee says he never did get rid of that big stack of tickets, and didn't even make back half of what he spent on the day. He takes the loss in stride, however, and hopes the PSL owner now feels comfortable selling him the same seats for the playoffs, because he's ready to go back at it.
Similar to many knowledgeable Panthers fans, Dee was hoping the Panthers wouldn't see the Seattle Seahawks in their first playoff game. He hoped to profit off a rabid Packers fan base that drove up ticket prices earlier in the season, but thanks to a missed field goal by the Vikings on Jan. 10, the Seahawks will be coming to town and the Panthers will be looking to avenge their playoff loss from a year ago. If they take care of business, however, there's still a chance the Packers will be returning for the NFC Championship.
Regardless of the opponent, scalpers like Dee as well as incoming counterfeiters will be gearing up for the opportunity of the year on Jan. 17. And when that day comes, the CTTF will be prepared too, showing up in full force and trying to separate the real from the fake.
You have to love playoff football.