Scalpers flipping Yosemite reservations

Scalpers flipping Yosemite reservations
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By Marjie Lundstrom
mlundstrom@sacbee.com
Published: Monday, Apr. 18, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Apr. 19, 2011 - 6:42 am

Ticket scalping is a crass reality for the Giants, the Lakers and Lady Gaga, but here's a wave of price-gouging you may have missed: Yosemite National Park.

Campsite reservations and permits to scale Half Dome have become such hot commodities that the National Park Service is scrambling to halt the auctioning of park access to the highest bidder.

The flipping of reservations and permits in Yosemite – the third-most-visited national park – is so rampant on Internet sites like Craigslist that park officials are "becoming more aggressive" in trying to shut down these operators, said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman.

"We want to stop it as much as we can," he said. "It's not fair. These (reservations and permits) aren't intended to go into the after-market. But it's becoming more sophisticated. … People are finding ways to abuse the system."

A review last week of all 29 Craigslist sites in California revealed dozens of ads peddling prime camp spots during the summer high season, including the coveted Yosemite Valley floor.

The 900 Yosemite campsites available for advance reservation cost $20 a night when booked through the park's contractor, ReserveAmerica. But park officials and some consumers report being quoted prices of $100 to $150 a night from Craigslist vendors, who sometimes offer to change the name on the reservation.

Profiteers also are nabbing and reselling permits to climb the iconic Half Dome, which are issued by the park essentially for free (plus a $1.50 handling charge.) Gediman said the program limiting the number of people allowed each day to ascend Half Dome via the cables was started last year for safety reasons and has been well received by visitors.

Then scalpers moved in.

Rick DeLappe, the reservation service program manager for the National Park Service, said he is fielding increasing consumer complaints about illicit Yosemite resales. But the battle is tricky. While eBay has a filter that will remove any posting to auction off a piece of Yosemite, he said, the same is not true with Craigslist.

"It kills us, because there's so little we can do about it," DeLappe said.

Can scalpers be prosecuted?

Park officials are reluctant to provide details of their investigation into reservation-flipping but say they are aggressively trying to identify perpetrators. According to an NPS "director's order," resale or auction of advance reservations is prohibited.

But can those cashing in on Yosemite be criminally prosecuted? And if so, who would do it? Gediman said the legal aspects of how to handle profiteers are under review by National Park Service and Yosemite officials, along with other federal agencies, given that multiple jurisdictions likely would be involved.

So far, scalping appears to be confined in the national park system to Yosemite, a dramatic wonder about which naturalist John Muir once said, "No temple made with hands can compare. … Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life." A Bee review of Craigslist ads in eight other states with the busiest national parks showed no postings for campsites or permits for sale.

"There's so much passion about camping in Yosemite," said DeLappe. "Families have gone there for years."

But demand far exceeds supply in the busy summer months, particularly July and August, when park visits soar.

For those hoping to reserve one of 900 campsites (about the same number are first come, first served), the park will begin accepting telephone or online bookings for a desired arrival date on the 15th of the month, up to five months in advance. For instance, campers planning a July 4 visit would want to be poised at their phones or computers (www.recreation.gov) when reservations open at 7 a.m. Pacific time on Feb. 15.

Reservations for the prime Valley floor vanish in minutes, Gediman said, while the remainder usually are gobbled up within a half-hour.

How, then, are scalpers muscling to the head of the reservation queue? Gediman said it appears that some have found a way to game the system, devising automated programs that instantly snag cancellations.

The anti-scalping brigade

One San Diego computer expert said it is obvious to him that the park's reservation system in general has become vulnerable to unscrupulous wheeler-dealers.

The 49-year-old systems engineer, who did not want his name published for fear of reprisal from online profiteers, said he discovered the Craigslist ads after repeated attempts to get legitimate reservations failed.

Initially, he said, he and his wife commandeered the phone and computer and contacted reservations at precisely 7 a.m. on Feb. 15. The telephone line was busy; the Web site was "inaccessible," he said.

By the time he reached a reservations person at 7:15 a.m., the park was sold out, he said.

The following month, he recruited 20 family members to make a full-scale assault – 10 by phone, 10 by Internet. This time, he said, a reservation clerk informed one family member at 7:15 a.m. that all the Valley sites again were gone, with only a few outside the Valley remaining.

The San Diego man later spotted a Craigslist ad, and was quoted $560 for seven nights at two campsites in the Valley. He declined the arrangement, describing such profiteers as "thieves of our national park system."

Yosemite officials urge visitors to steer clear of resale schemers, and to check back often with ReserveAmerica for campsite cancellations – which can, and do, occur throughout the summer.

Park insiders also recommend to reserve online, not by phone.

Meanwhile, some Craigslist users are letting their feelings be known about the Yosemite black market. Last week, amid a string of postings for campsites and Half Dome permits on San Francisco's Craigslist – one of the busiest sites for Yosemite scalping – one user posted a message under the heading "Yosemite Campground Reservations – $1." Browsers who bit wound up with an earful.

"If you are trying to sell Yosemite Campground reservations for a profit it's illegal and just WRONG. I will continue to flag them over and over! It's hard enough getting reservations in Yosemite for a campsite we sure as hell don't need people buying up multiple sites and selling them for profit!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

For this Craigslist poster, some things simply don't belong on the auction block.