Scamming Online Festivals for BBC Newsbeat

I would have spent this weekend adorned in glitter, standing in a grassy field, with one hand holding an overpriced cider and in the other a stage map of the festival, working out who to see next without clashing with another incredible artist.

For festival lovers and ravers like me, COVID has hit us hard. To deal with a stressful situation, dancing with strangers under a starlit sky to your favourite artist and smiling up at the world would be the perfect antidote, a clear reminder of how beautiful the world is and everyone in it. But with social distancing, reduced capacity and no singing for many live music venues, festivals would be a quite different experience, and many are forced to remain closed until next year. Especially if one festival attendee has one too many and becomes best friends with the entire crowd, as South Korea reported, all it takes is just one person with coronavirus in a venue, to force all attendees to isolate.

Instead, thousands of us are turning to online festivals via social media platforms like Facebook to keep our spirits high in a time of darkness. Although we may not be able to dance with strangers, we can still rave in our kitchens and share these moments with each other over screens.

But scammers have been taking advantage of the current climate and preying on those enjoying the festival, infiltrating social media platforms, imitating Facebook events, Facebook groups and Facebook pages, sabotaging the original event by trying to co-host with genuine musicians and even spamming phishing links to the online events.  

The scam was highlighted to me by Kev Tate, from Festival Event UK, who had seen the scams pop up during Glasthomebury and Boomtown Festival and he began to monitor the situation. After he flagged it up to me, I dug a little deeper and reached out to various festivals, the Association of Independent Festivals and individuals who had been scammed themselves to see just how vast this type of scam was.

Sarah Emberson from Glasthomebury spoke of hundreds of scammers infiltrating the event, and how she had a whole team of family and friends to constantly report, remove and block people on the event. Her event was to reminisce on Glastonbury Festival’s previous years and to unite festival lovers. She spoke to me of how terrifying the scam unfolded in front of her eyes. Simon from Shindig Festival shared similar experiences with me and so did Anna, communications director of Boomtown. The scammers didn’t care with what size or reputation the festival had, in their eyes, any festival was an easy target. Paul Reed, chief executive of the Association of Independent Festivals highlighted to me that the scam he’d noticed had been going since July and the scammers were infiltrating all kinds of festivals, with different genres of music too.

Speaking with DJ Chris Tofu from Lost Horizons, he highlighted to me the impact these scams can have on a music festival or event, on an already struggling industry. I spoke to Ellen, Caroline and Sarah, all attendees of online festivals on social media about the scams they saw on the page and how in some cases, they fell prey to the scam. As one individual highlighted to me, “I thought it was real as there was so many posts on the Facebook page. If it wasn’t real, they would have shut it down”.

The sheer magnitude and “barrage” Anna from Boomtown said of the scam was enormous. It is a “travesty” DJ Chris Tofu quite rightly said, but what will be happen in the future? Complete removal from social media platforms to other online channels? Or will the scammers become smarter? Paul from AIF, Anna from Boomtown and DJ Chris Tofu all spoke about adapting the content, but what if the scams adapt with them?

I did a report on these scams with a few clips from some of the interviews I put together for BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra’s Newsbeat Festival special with Steffan Powell and Sinead Garvan. A special thank you to Sinead for producing the report, Steve Holden for commissioning it and Toby Sealey for giving it the go ahead.