When 46-year-old Conor looks back on his youth, he remembers how all his friends got caught up in drugs “or doing other bad things to make money.” But not him. “My drugs were tickets,” he says. “I was Blinker King for years, bro.”
The black market around blinkers, otherwise known as counterfeit tickets, has evolved greatly over the years. But during their heyday — before Ticketmaster crackdowns and the rise of barcodes — Conor claims he was at the top of the illegal counterfeit ticket selling and scalping industry.
Conor is now an Atlanta family man and works selling medical tests and setting up poker tournaments, but he will never forget the scores from some of the biggest events he worked over 30 years. He claims he made 100k at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996; 250k at the 2002 World Series; and even more than that at the 1994 Eagles concert at Irvine Meadows. “The ticket game will grab you because you’ve never seen more cash come in quicker than you can see in this game,” he says. “But it’s so hard to get out of it.”
When he was at the peak of his game, Conor says his tickets looked so authentic that everyone who bought them would actually get into the shows. But once barcodes rolled out, and people started getting popped at the gates, he quit the game. “That’s flat-out robbing people — 100 percent,” he says.
Following the Dead
For years, Conor’s illegal bread-and-butter was the Grateful Dead. “There was nothing better than the Grateful Dead back in the 1990s,” he says, estimating that he’s worked the parking lot at over a thousand Dead shows. “Every show would sell out, no matter what. You could go out there and absolutely crush it.” He would bring a crew of seven guys and roughly 500 blinker tickets to the Dead concerts, so each person had 60 tickets to sell for $180 to $200 a pop. “We were like gods,” Conor recalls. “I’d show up in the parking lot, and these people would literally chase me to get tickets because there was no other way for them to get in.”
In Conor’s mind, he was a modern-day Robin Hood. “I was making their dream come true,” he says. But of course, there was also a lot in it for him. “They’d give you anything to go to a show.” According to Conor, this meant the best ecstasy, coke, acid, shrooms and weed, all in exchange for a few counterfeit tickets. To him, the only person getting scammed by this deal was the promoter. “And the promoters didn’t really care because all we were doing was getting more people in the seats where they would buy more merchandise,” he says.
However, Jon Bailey spent his entire adult life in the live event industry, including working for Ticketmaster for four years in the early aughts, and he certainly doesn’t view Conor as any sort of Robin Hood. “You’re selling something that isn’t legitimate,” he says. “You’re undermining not just contracts with the artists, you’re undermining the event staff, you’re undermining security.”
But Bailey does back up Conor’s memory that the counterfeit industry followed Dead shows closely, explaining that the Dead very rarely had reserved seating at their shows. “A general admission show is a million times easier to counterfeit than something with assigned seats,” he explains.
Bailey says it’s hard to gauge how large the counterfeit ticket industry actually is, or was, because it’s nearly impossible to get good data on a black market. But certainly the Wild West era of counterfeiting took place before barcodes — when all it took to scam your way into a show was a good printing connection.
Today, an estimated five million counterfeit tickets are sold each year, the majority of which happen through online sales, according to AARP. Another report found that roughly 12 percent of people who purchase a concert ticket online end up getting duped. The current blinker scam involves taking the barcode off of, say, a $75 upper-level concert seat (bought with a stolen credit card) and turning it into $500 floor seats, where the concertgoer will then find 20 other people showing up for the exact same seat.
In Bailey’s view, selling blinkers isn’t a victimless crime because no matter how good the quality of the counterfeit, there will still be people popped at the gate and not able to get in. He also disagrees with Conor’s claim that promoters didn’t care about 500 additional people getting into a sold-out show. “It’s a safety issue when you start having too many people inside a building — or outdoors — whatever it is. You’re exceeding the legal capacity,” he explains, pointing to the recent tragedy at Travis Scott’s AstroWorld Festival in Houston where eight people were crushed to death. This is why, he argues, law enforcement has taken counterfeiting so seriously.
In fact, the history of law enforcement cracking down on counterfeiting is as old as law enforcement itself. “The FBI was formed because people were counterfeiting money,” says Francine Accardi-Peri, who, back in 1984, began working as the office manager for the Grateful Dead’s ticketing arm: GDTS. She relays that the Feds cracked down on counterfeit ticket crews because, if they were capable of faking tickets, they might also be capable of printing counterfeit money. “It’s stealing from the customer,” she says. And from the Dead ticketing office perspective: “You’re giving us a big headache. That means more money to pay for security.”
Bailey concurs, adding, “If you’re counterfeiting tickets and selling them at shows, you’re committing fraud — by just the basic definition of it.”
How Does One Become the Blinker King?
Growing up, Conor lived with his mom and younger brother, Tommy, in a trailer with no running water. He remembers taking baths in a stream and getting kicked out of school for having lice. “When you’re poor in Mississippi,” says Conor, “you’re fucking poor.” But living in poverty was also his biggest motivation. “I had nothing. I hated the feeling of all these kids always having more than me.”
When Conor was 10, his mom moved the brothers out to Orange County, California, where she took a job as a cook on a fishing boat. By the time he hit 12, Conor was already hustling. “I sold mistletoe — that’s how I got in the ticket game,” he says. At Christmas time, Conor and Tommy, four years his junior, would sell mistletoe outside of shopping malls for $5 a bag, and he played up his Mississippi accent in his favor: “Nobody could say ‘no’ to me.”
Conor and Tommy were an instant success. “I sold 250 bags of mistletoe in one day. It was insane.” The two brothers were outside a Mervyn’s department store when a hustler named Marley first approached them and asked if they wanted to “make some real money.” From there, Conor and Tommy started hustling counterfeit tickets outside of baseball games and amusement parks. “A guy who was making Disneyland and Six Flags Magic Mountain tickets was a printer I knew,” Conor recalls. “I’d pay him $5,000 to give me a thousand tickets, and I’d go out there and sell them for $30 bucks in the back of the line.”
Counterfeit tickets quickly turned bits of cardstock into money for the brothers. As Conor grew older, the San Diego Zoo became his ATM. He knew he could go out there, anytime, and within 10 minutes make $400 to $500. But once security caught on, he had to expand his business. So he’d recruit kids from his high school, giving each classmate about 30 tickets and a percentage of the sales. “We’d have scanners, and we’d know what frequency their security was on,” Conor says. Once security caught on, everyone would jump into their cars and bolt. “And we’d go to the next place.”
By the time Conor was 15, he had his own apartment with $50k stashed under his mattress. Conor remembers renting out full movie theaters to impress his friends from the wealthy side of town. For his junior prom, he says he hired a helicopter to fly him and his date to Catalina Island. “I was the one that everybody wanted to hang out with and be around,” he brags.
Soon, Conor was making more money than his teachers. In fact, that’s exactly what he told his high school counselor when he dropped out of school in the middle of 10th grade. At the time, he thought, Why the fuck am I going to keep going here when I could just be out hustling?
Say Hello to Chance and Scarface
When he was 17, Conor met two local criminals called Chance and Scarface (a boiler blew up on him as a child), who asked him a familiar question: “Do you want to start making some real money?’”
Chance and Scarface took the brothers under their wing and became criminal father figures to them. But most importantly, they brought them into the world of selling counterfeit concert tickets. “The first blink show I did was in Eugene, Oregon at a Grateful Dead show,” says Conor, remembering back to the early 1990s. “We drove in a car overnight.”
Chance had a girlfriend who worked for Ticketmaster who would provide the blinker crew with actual Ticketmaster blank ticket stock in bricks of 5,000. Planning would start months in advance: As soon as the Dead’s performance dates were announced, Chance and Scarface would buy one ticket for every stop on the tour calendar, and then ship the tickets off to a printer in Mexico City. “They would make up whatever number we’d tell them,” says Conor.
When the tickets arrived back to them via courier, Conor would work with Scarface on one side of the country, and Tommy would work with Chance on the other. “We got arrested a lot. We got busted a lot. But we were kids so they let us go,” he says.
Chance’s girlfriend eventually procured a stolen Ticketmaster machine so they could print counterfeit tickets in hotel rooms, right outside the events. Adding to that, Tommy got an after-school job as a gift wrapper at the mall — solely because the store had a Ticketmaster machine. When no one was looking, he’d throw out bundles of Ticketmaster paper stock, and then pull them out of the dumpster after work.
Each time Ticketmaster evolved the technology, the blinker crew would evolve along with them. “We figured out how to get thermal paper,” says Conor. “Our ticket wouldn’t smear because it was burned into the thermal paper.” Plus, the sea of inferior counterfeit tickets worked in the blinker crews’ favor. “We’d always have the tickets that were perfect,” Conor says. “We were golden. I’m right in front of the box office selling tickets — literally right in front of the gate.”
The Writing on the Wall
When Conor turned 18, he got busted hard — his first time getting arrested as an adult. He was selling blinker tickets at the New Orleans’ annual jazz festival when a cop tackled him and threw him in the back of a squad car. “They wanted to know who was making the tickets,” says Conor. “They thought it was me, but I was just the guy who was selling them.”
When Conor went to court, the judge threatened to throw the book at him. But his lawyer worked out a deal: Conor would make a “cash donation” of $4,000, and they let him go after three days in jail — all charges dropped. But the cash donation to the judge was just a drop in the bucket for Conor. “I’ve never had a value for the dollar because I’d made it so easy and I spent it so easily,” says Conor.
Indeed, money would leave his pockets as quickly as it came in. After blinker gigs in Vegas, he’d go crazy. “We’re poppin’ bottles of Cristal in the back of the limo. Busting them open, I mean, six $700 bottles of champagne, just popping them like they’re a freakin’ Coke bottle,” Conor says. And in the casinos, “I’d be betting whatever the max bet is on your hand.”
In fact, Conor gambled on anything he could. As a teenager, Conor had a bookie that would take $10,000 bets for him. “When I’m having to pay my bookie every Tuesday after Monday Night Football $40,000, and I’m not making that kind of money, that’s when it got bad,” he says. It became a perpetual cycle of selling blinkers to feed his gambling habit, which fed the need to sell more blinkers. “I knew I’d make it again,” he continues. “There was always next weekend. There was always a freakin’ Jimmy Buffett coming to town.”
And Then Came the Barcodes
When Ticketmaster started rolling out barcodes, which are near impossible to counterfeit, Conor says he was already beginning to question his morals, along with his safety — especially when his customers were getting turned away at the gates.
Because so much counterfeiting was going on, Steve Marcus, head of ticketing for the Grateful Dead from 1984 to 1995 would go on tour with the band and set up a ticket-verification booth outside of shows. “When we were doing the tickets, counterfeiters would be caught at every show,” Marcus tells me. Marcus was such a wiz at spotting counterfeit Dead tickets that the FBI once brought him into their bureau office in San Francisco to examine thousands of mail-order tickets. He could spot the fakes in minutes. “I’d find counterfeits and show it to the ticket takers and security — and they’d know exactly what to look for,” Marcus says. “Ninety-nine percent of the counterfeit tickets wouldn’t get in. All of a sudden, these counterfeiters weren’t treated as gods; they were treated suspiciously.”
For Conor, it all started to come crashing down at a Dead show at Madison Square Garden in 1994. “I went out there, and I started selling tickets,” he recalls. “Then all of a sudden, these guys come back and go, ‘HE’S THE GUY WITH THE FAKE TICKETS!’”
Conor did the only thing he could think of: He started running down the street while being chased by a mob of Deadheads. Eventually, Conor ran into a rival blinker hustler called Knockout Pete (named such because he was known for knocking out other hustlers and stealing their tickets). That night, Conor ended up selling Knockout Pete all his blinkers wholesale. “Then I jumped on the subway to the airport and fucking rolled out as quick as I could,” he says.
Jerry Garcia and the End of the Ride
Despite the Madison Square Garden ticket debacle, Conor still hustled blinkers at Dead shows. He was on tour with the band when Jerry Garcia died in 1995. “Real sad times when Jerry died,” he says. “That was a dagger.” But Conor was never a fan of the Dead’s music — for him, Jerry’s death signaled the end of the era for blinkers and easy money.
After Garcia’s death, Conor’s blinker crew switched up their game and started trading in drag-racing tickets. But in Gainesville, the Feds knew Conor was going to show up. Undercover officers bought tickets to a race and busted Conor on the spot, taking down his entire blinker crew with him. As always, Conor stuck to his usual story, telling them he “bought them off some dude on the corner.” After two days in jail, they let him go.
But it was the Tool show in Atlanta in 2005, which took place at a small venue called the Tabernacle, that was the real game-changer for Conor. “That made me say, ‘You need to get the fuck out of this game — or something bad is going to happen.’” Conor already knew the feds and Ticketmaster were on to him, and then the first person who tried to get in with one of Conor’s blinkers got popped. “All these dudes wanted to kill me. They came after me hard because nobody got in,” he says. “It blew up in my face.”
He professes that was it — that he gave everything up right then and there. He says he’s never gone back mostly because of his kids. “Everything has to do with the way they look at me, the way they grow up, the way they feel about their dad,” he tells me. “And that’s when everything changed. That’s when the switch went off.”
But he admits he also owes a lot to the barcodes for keeping him on the straight-and-narrow. If those hadn’t changed everything, he says, “I’d probably still be doing it today.”