(Photo illustration by Katherine Lee/The Washington Post)

Britney Spears had long been on my concert bucket list. Two hours before curtain call for her sold-out show in Washington, I found tickets on Craigslist. So I decided to take a chance.

I had reasons to be hopeful. The seller had an email account, a phone number with a local area code and a plausible explanation as to why he couldn’t attend the show. We met face-to-face, and the tickets had the theater location, performance date and bar codes, along with a printed invoice. I bought a pair for $150 (face value: $273), in cash, on the spot.

It seemed too good to be true. Turns out, it was.

My friend and I were stopped at the venue's security gate when our bar codes wouldn't scan. At the box office, an attendant determined in a matter of seconds that our tickets were fakes.

Ticket fraud affects nearly 5 million event attendees per year, said Justin Burleigh, chief product officer of Ticketmaster North America. Summer is a particularly busy season for ticket forgers, who bank on highly anticipated sporting events, sold-out concerts and hot acts  such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z's "On the Run II" Tour, which experts predict will probably be the next big target for scammers in the Washington area — to pull fast and lucrative cons. “It’s literally the very worst experience that a fan can have,” Burleigh said.

Here’s how fans can avoid it.

Always try to buy from the official box office first.

“The only way to know for certain that you have legitimate tickets is to buy them from the primary ticket seller,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for I.M.P., which runs such venues as the Anthem and 9:30 Club. It may seem obvious, but if you click the first link at the top of your search engine results, you may not be going straight to the source. Many of them are product ads, so be mindful of the site's URL before placing your order.

Don't post your tickets on social media before the show.

Fraudsters can copy your name and bar code from your photos and make forged copies to sell to unsuspecting victims. If the pirated copies get scanned by an attendant first, you even with the real goods might not be allowed inside the venue.

Be very careful when purchasing tickets from Craigslist.

Looking for secondhand Ikea furniture? Craigslist is your spot. Ticket purchases, on the other hand, aren't always a safe bet.

“This commodity is not like buying a purse or a hat. This is something that expires like ice cream,” said Joseph Asaro, StubHub's chief security officer. “The minute you go to that gate and you can't get in, you've got a problem  and there's no organization to back it up.”

Craigslist did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Anonymous scammers can easily mask themselves behind fake email addresses and phone numbers. And although Craigslist advises to deal "locally, face-to-face" to avoid scams, it's still risky. If you're scammed, flag the posting and report the user.

Know the ticket refund policy and service fees.

You should have a clear understanding of the terms of the transaction and how you will be refunded if the tickets are forgeries. To keep up with competitors, many major ticket sellers, including Ticketmaster and Ticketfly, have developed resale markets. Tickets are guaranteed as authentic but are sold at a markup that includes a commission.

Same goes with large third-party companies, like StubHub and SeatGeek. StubHub, an eBay subsidiary, charges a commission but promises a full refund if the listed ticket turns out to be a forgery. Asaro says invalid sales happen less than 1 percent of the time.

Even then, buyers should also consider other potential financial costs that won't get recouped should the transaction fail, including transportation, babysitters hired or time off work.

If a ticket price sounds unreal, it probably is.

Way-below-market-value tickets should set off internal alarm bells. “If Beyoncé tickets are going for $2,000 or $3,000, and someone is offering to sell it to you for $100 or $200, that’s an obvious no-no,” says Curtis Prince, a detective with the D.C. police’s Financial and Cyber Crimes Unit.

Examine your tickets closely.

Don’t let your excitement lead you to overlook obvious errors or irregularities. Be skeptical and mindful, looking for telltale signs of counterfeit tickets, such as low-quality paper stock, smudged printing, discolorations, misspellings, uneven border margins and nonlinear alignments. Upon taking a closer look at my fake Britney Spears tickets, the paper stock was too thin, the letters weren't raised and the ink on the back was slightly discolored.

D.C. police have released a list of steps you can take to help “spot a fake ticket in hand,” which includes a “standard scratch test” and certain locations to check for discrepancies, including the bar code and Ticketmaster logo.

Purchase the tickets using a credit card or PayPal. 

This establishes a digital paper trail between you and the buyer, and you can dispute the transaction later if needed. Also, avoid any unusual payment arrangements, including wire transfers, gift cards and MoneyGrams.

Consider doing the transaction at a local police station. 

For an extra level of security, law enforcement officials recommend buyers meet sellers inside the lobby of one of the city's seven police stations. The D.C. stations are open 24 hours a day and have closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras.

Request a copy of the seller’s ticket receipt and ask to see a state-issued license.

Confirm that the name on the seller’s ID matches the name on the ticket invoice. For added safety, ask the person — politely — if you can take their photo on your smartphone. You can offer to delete the picture as soon as the tickets have cleared. If the person declines, it may be cause for concern. But if the seller just seems camera-shy, ask to see an alternative ID or a social media page (with photos) to help verify their identity.

If you get duped, file a police report or a complaint with the transaction site.

If you wind up with a counterfeit ticket, contact local law enforcement to file a police report. Additionally, report the scalper's behavior through the third-party site you used to set up the transaction.

Even if you were given a fake name, phone number and email address, like I was, you can still provide identifying information on the scalper that can help a police investigation and prevent other fans from getting swindled in the future. “If they’re successful and no one makes a report, they’ll go and do it again and again,” Prince said.