Mia Narell was well aware of the dangers of buying Burning Man tickets off the gray market, but this year she had no choice. She'd missed the January pre-sale and the regular sale in February, during which tickets were snatched up in 45 minutes. She'd watched bidding wars launch on eBay as secondhand prices ballooned; by midsummer, a single ticket could fetch nearly twice its original $380 value.
Undeterred, Narell and her boyfriend decided to try anyway. They trolled Burner Facebook groups, fished on Craigslist, and tried to gird themselves against anything that looked "clearly scammy."
"I saw a post that warned to beware of scammers, so I knew they were out there," Narell says. "But I thought that would be something obvious, like 'PayPal me the money.'"
When someone advertised two tickets at face value and offered to meet in person, Narell took the bait. She negotiated with the seller via text message, sussed out his credibility, and dispatched her boyfriend to purchase the goods near their home in New York City. (Narell is an architecture grad student at UC Berkeley, but she spends summers on the East Coast.) He returned with a sealed envelope, which they set aside for several weeks.
"When I finally opened the envelope, they didn't look right," Narell says. "The paper weight wasn't right, they didn't have an embossed image."
She scoured Google for images of real tickets, and found a link buried in the back of the Burning Man site with instructions on how to tell if a ticket is real. "Our tickets have numerous physical security features, unique foils, embossings, and variable data," it says, admonishing users not to buy tickets via the anonymous wire payment system Moneygram. Narell grew more suspicious. She downloaded an app that scans ticket barcodes to assess their veracity.
"I tested it by scanning items in the house," she recalls. "When I scanned our tickets, they said 'April Fool's Day.'"
She and her boyfriend were out $800. They called Burning Man. They filed a police report. They posted a dejected status update on Facebook.
"No one has ever made it through the gate with a fake ticket," Burning Man spokeswoman Megan Miller assures, adding that people who arrive with faux passes in hand — inevitably, a few do — are often allowed to purchase new tickets on the spot. The Burning Man staff even goes so far as to void tickets that are sold above cost in the gray market, since such capers violate the Burner credo.
Fortunately, Narell got another shot during last week's "OMG" sale, during which 3,000 more tickets were released. She may burn this year, after all.