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Scalpers Get the Scrub in D.C.

Park rangers crack down on those who resell tickets for White House tours


WASHINGTON — Get up at the crack of dawn. Wait in a very long line. Stand too close to your fellow American. This is the way your country intends for you to see the White House.

So anyone with the outrageously unpatriotic idea of sleeping in and slipping $10 to a scalper in the hopes of taking the tour of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. might as well just keep dreaming. The National Park Service doesn't like your brand of tourist.

Cheating on the White House tour ticket line is a time-honored tradition, upheld by generations of scalpers. But that doesn't matter anymore. Rules are rules, and the authorities who oversee the tour operation are tired of ignoring them. So now they are cracking down.

Word from the rangers: Under absolutely no circumstances should anyone pay decent money for that free 23-minute, government-approved tour. "We want the visitors who wait in line to get their fair chance at a ticket," says Park Service ranger Tom Peyton. "That's the system. That's the way it works."

In the past, scalpers have sold the free tickets for as much as $50 a pop--particularly to tourists who don't quite speak the language of U.S. currency.

Not surprisingly, scalpers are annoyed at the recent developments.

After all, they say, they are just trying to make a living, and what could be more American than that?

"You gotta make some kind of money," says George, a 37-year-old scalper who chortled when asked if he would give his last name. "We're not doing anything wrong if we stand in line."

These profiteers have been around for years, since the ticket system started in 1975. Until last month, they were an institution, just like the White House. But like others who smell trouble in Washington, the scalpers are now scrambling to control their spin.

"They think we are asking the tourists for money, but really, they are asking us for tickets. So it's not like we're really out there selling anything," argues a scalper who would be identified only as Michael.

But Peyton, who oversees the ticket operation at the White House Visitor Center, is tired of watching tourists get ripped off. With the help of a few undercover park police, Peyton was happy to report the arrests of four scalpers in the first week of the crackdown last month. He only wishes he could do more.

Actually, the scalping business is not that great. Peyton calculated the illegal scheme nets only about $5,000 a year for a core of 15 regular scalpers--most of whom are homeless people who leave the shelters by 6 a.m. and go straight to the ticket line for their four-ticket-per-person allotment.

The real scammers, he says, are the tour van operators and hotel concierges who buy the tickets from scalpers for $5 each and then resell them to tourists for about $20. Peyton cannot do much about these behind-the-scenes players, who get away with the scheme by disguising the ticket price as a service fee.

All these accusations upset concierges at the city's most elite hotels. Motasem Ahmed at the Hay-Adams, which overlooks the White House, says he would never call on such an uncivilized service. His guests don't need it, thank you.

"Most of our guests are VIPs," he says, before suggesting some smaller, lower-profile establishments where he thinks the clientele might be a bit more interested.

As for solutions, Peyton is considering high-tech ideas fit for an anti-terrorism unit. One option, he says, is to fingerprint visitors at the ticket booth and then scan those prints at the White House.

Another option: ultraviolet hand stamps. The Park Service would mark each visitor's hand with a chemically engineered imprint at the ticket office and then scan the stamp under a monitor at the White House to prevent ticket switches.

Folks waiting in line outside the White House ticket office--the ones who never got advance passes from their congressional offices--see these measures and countermeasures as the wrong approach. What they want are simply more tickets. On the average summer day, at least 500 people are turned away, including folks who line up as early as 6:30 a.m.

"Ma'am, I get people coming up to me all the time, telling me they're from Singapore, and they're only in town for a day, but I still can't help them," ranger Pocohantas Shuck told a woman from Bombay, India, who begged for a ticket and swore that her plane was leaving that afternoon.

On that particular morning, 2,500 color-coded passes disappeared in all of 15 minutes. The scalpers still worked the crowd, albeit less obviously. Still, some tourists wouldn't be swayed.

"Why would I pay for something that's free?" boomed Vince Rosati, 43, a tourist from New Castle, Pa. Even so, he couldn't help grousing a few minutes later. "God, I hate lines," he said. "This is worse than Disney World."

The die-hards in spots No. 1 and 2 on the line--who arrived before 4:30 a.m.--agreed that anyone who gives in to a scalper's charms is not waiting the American way.

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