Organised criminals with links to the arms and drugs trade were on Wednesday night plotting to hijack the Rugby World Cup ticket launch and hold countless ordinary fans to ransom on the secondary market.
Tournament organisers and senior police officers admitted the second biggest sporting event ever held in the UK would definitely be targeted by gangs of touts, who Britain’s leading anti-ticket fraud expert warned stood to make millions illegally from fleecing unsuspecting supporters.
Friday’s 10am launch will see eager fans from around the world log on to England Rugby 2015’s official website in the hope of purchasing tickets which are priced from an affordable £7 and cost an average of £32-£35.
But they face being at a massive disadvantage to sophisticated criminals boasting state-of-the-art software which allows them to harvest huge numbers of tickets for resale at extortionate prices.
The scale of the attempted scam could be unprecedented, according to Reg Walker, regarded as one the country’s biggest experts on anti-ticket fraud.
“It’s going to be one of the handful of events that would be one of the most heavily targeted ever,” he told The Telegraph.
“The amount to be made would certainly be seven figures. These people don’t get out of bed for peanuts.”
The nightmare scenario was made possible after the Government refused to ban the resale of tickets for the tournament, despite repeated warnings from England 2015’s chief executive, Debbie Jevans, and the police.
Both experienced first-hand the impact of such a ban while working on the London Olympics and Paralympics and are now in a desperate fight to prevent the Rugby World Cup being exploited by criminal networks.
“Of course I’m concerned that touts are potentially going to be able to buy up the reasonably-priced tickets and then on-sell them,” Jevans said.
Commander Stephen Head, the National Police Coordinator for Economic Crime at City of London Police, added: “These touts can put in a different kind of scale of applications, so they can make multiple, multiple applications instantaneously.”
Measures have been put in place in order to combat this threat, with Jevans and Head working together to catch those illegally using multiple identities to buy more than the four tickets per match to which each applicant is meant to be limited.
Holding a ballot for oversubscribed games is one such measure but Walker, who is operations director of the Iridium Consultancy and has helped tackle ticket fraud at the O2 Arena, said of the touts: “What they will simply do is flood the ballots.”
Applications made during the general sale window between Friday and Sept 29 will also be vetted to weed out those from the same IP addresses.
Walker said: “These people have so many identities, so many addresses, so many proxy IDs around the world. It is physically impossible to stop harvesting.”
Head denied it was “impossible”, vowing to do everything to “mitigate the risk”, adding: “It is in no one’s interest for these gangs to succeed.”
The Rugby World Cup’s ticketing platform will be run by Ticketmaster, whose managing director, Simon Presswell, admitted it was in a “virtual arms race” with touts.
He added: “We are able to identify the IP addresses, monitor any unusual activity or behaviour and then de-duplicate any applications that we believe to have been made fraudulently.”
Jevans warned that anyone buying a ticket other than through England 2015’s official channels faced being refused entry to matches.
How practical that is to enforce at a tournament for which 2.3 million tickets are expected to be sold remains to be seen.
Head said: “When you buy from these secondary sites in this instance, you will potentially be supporting other aspects of criminality, so search your conscience.
“You may also be throwing away huge amounts of money and you may still not get to see the game.”
Jevans pointed out that was the fate that befell the parents of Rebecca Adlington at the 2008 Olympics, when they bought second-hand tickets for their daughter’s double gold medal-winning performance only to arrive in Beijing and find they did not exist.
The England 2015 chief refused to play the “blame game” over Rugby World Cup fans being left similarly vulnerable, something that dates back to the International Rugby Board’s failure to make a ban on resale a precondition of hosting the tournament.
“We respect the fact that we did not get legislation,” she added.
The shadow sports minister, Clive Efford, who lobbied for such a ban, said: “It is a disgrace that the Government has refused to act.
“Preventing genuine fans being exploited must be a primary concern for all major events hosted in the UK.”
The sports minister, Helen Grant, said: “We have confidence in the plans that England Rugby 2015 and Ticketmaster have put in place to ensure that tickets end up in the hands of genuine fans for the Rugby World Cup.
“Many major events are held in this country successfully using similar measures and technology and we are sure the tournament will be a great success that will grow rugby at home and abroad.”
IRB president Bernard Lapasset added: “It is our objective to ensure that fans from around the world have a wonderful Rugby World Cup experience.
“We are aware that unofficial sources will attempt to exploit fans and we have been working in full collaboration with ER 2015 and the appropriate authorities to deliver a proactive programme that focuses on education, prevention and monitoring.
“Our message to fans is clear – buy from official channels only and visit www.rugbyworldcup.com/buyofficial to verify sources.”