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Scalpers striking out with customers, cops

October 13, 2008|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

No, they probably don't need tickets.

On game days, you see them prowling the streets outside Dodger Stadium, flashing more signs than a third-base coach, their hand-scrawled scraps of cardboard reading, "I need tickets."

But what they really need is to scalp tickets -- and not get arrested in the process. The signs are a code to attract potential buyers, without announcing an intention to violate the law.

Sunday's National League Championship Series matchup of the Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies brought the curbside ticket merchants out in droves, along with the police officers whose pursuit of them makes this a cat-and-mouse form of commerce.

The black-market peddlers of Dodger blue also had to be mindful of retirement-age citizens whom the authorities enlist to pose as customers, setting up the scalpers for a bust.

"Last season, the cops sent some old people after me," said Cory Robertson, 36, who was scalping outside the stadium's Elysian Park Avenue gate Sunday, dressed in a Kirk Gibson jersey. "I sold them two tickets, and the cops came from everywhere. I thought it was a drug raid. . . . They took me to jail."

Under most circumstances, state and local laws prohibit scalping at entertainment venues or any public place. Violations are a misdemeanor.

"The problem with this is that it's a big nuisance," said Los Angeles Police Department Capt. William Murphy, referring in part to ticket hustlers who dash in and out of stadium traffic and descend on game-goers like panhandlers.

Although scalpers often buy tickets on the street with the aim of immediately reselling them at a profit, Murphy said the "need tickets" signs are designed mainly to "get people into conversations."

"The scalpers are hoping someone will come up who wants a ticket," he said. "They think that by putting that sign up, they're not violating anything."

Some scalpers own lower-tier resale agencies that obtain tickets from a larger broker and hawk them on commission, the captain added. Others are casual entrepreneurs who pick up tickets from the box office and online services.

Both types converged Sunday at the gate above Sunset Boulevard, where their numbers approached two dozen an hour before game time. Most carried the dog-eared signs, and many had been there since early morning. Sales were slow.

"If I didn't have regular customers, I'd be in big trouble," said Teddy Damon, 52, who owns a small ticket agency. He had been unable to unload his $8,000 worth of tickets at the office.

"I don't want to be out here, but I have no choice," he said, flapping his sign at the fans wheeling into the stadium. He kept his tickets under a Dodger hat and his eyes peeled for the police. "I'm just trying to get my money back."

Damon blamed the tanking economy and the fact that the Dodgers dropped the first two games of the series, a deficit that dampened buyer enthusiasm.

Dan Rubendall, founder of a La Canada online vendor called Zigabid, agreed. He told of a price-hammering glut of tickets for resale -- 4,000 or so.

"The market was average at best until they were down 2-0," Rubendall said. "There are so many tickets out there. . . . It's horrible."

Street prices slid as Sunday's game drew closer and closer, and as the police began popping up on the corners.

"They don't make it any better," said Damon, who had just received a cellphone call reporting two arrests on the other side of the stadium. "The undercovers are out today."

He skipped across Elysian Park Avenue to make a sale at an idling sedan. All along the block, his colleagues called out at the passing cars, "Need tickets?" . . . "Who wants field level?" . . . "How much you wanna spend?"

"I pretty much know all the undercovers," said Damon, who has been scalping for 15 years. He declined to say how many times he had been arrested or cited, but acknowledged that he got pinched last season after selling to a white-haired decoy couple.

Murphy said the volunteers undergo vetting by the department before they're deployed. Without them, he said, it would be tough to stay a step ahead of the scalpers.

"Undercover officers get burnt really quickly," he noted. "You can only arrest the same person once."

Arrests are up this Dodger season -- 64 compared with 49 in 2007. But jailing scalpers isn't a long-term fix.

"The challenge for us is that this is a $100 bail" offense, Murphy said. "We'll book them, and they'll pay the $100 bail and be out in an hour."

Jack Ross, a 22-year-old UC Berkeley student from Santa Monica, was more brazen than most of the scalpers Sunday, standing in the street and waving a fistful of tickets at the traffic.

"I'm not really worried about getting busted," said Ross, who began scalping tickets four years ago. "I pick out a game here and there."

He said he netted $700 reselling tickets for the only home Dodgers-Cubs playoff game, but figured to lose about $300 on the Phillies series. He bought eight tickets for each game.

With the surplus of scalper supplies, Ross said, "everything just backfired."

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paul.pringle@latimes.com

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