Cape Town - You may consider yourself internet savvy, but anyone can be the victim of a scam.
Take the case of 21-year-old Olwyn Cowley from Brackenfell in Cape Town. He posted an ad on website Gumtree and was murdered last Friday after setting up a meeting with the potential buyer of his BMW.
Or the Fin24 user who was diddled out of his hard-earned pennies in a sophisticated pet travel scam, which involved sending money via Western Union to Cameroon for a "refundable" deposit.
The hard truth is that anyone who is active online is also vulnerable to the dangers that accompany interacting on the internet.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep these exchanges as secure as possible. Online portals cannot entirely eliminate pitfalls, but using a local classified website that knows and understands South African consumer behaviour will certainly minimise the risks.
Felix Erken, MD of local classifieds exchange Junk Mail, says the perception that online classified sites are rife with fraudulent posts or online scams is untrue.
"Less than 1% of the adverts on our site are considered 'fraudulent' – and we eliminate most of them before they are ever published," he says. Erken says the portal has measures to shield both buyer and seller.
"If a suspicious advert is detected, a red flag is raised by the automated system; the advert is passed to the moderation expert team for review. Should the content raise a cause for concern, it is immediately removed."
According to Erken, online classifieds are now safer than ever. "There are so many social tools and mechanisms to flag suspicious advertisements, as opposed to the print only days or the early days of the internet,” Erken explains.
“We encourage users to report suspicious ads immediately. We also keep a record of these adverts and scams on our blog, which the public can consult if they are unsure of the legitimacy of an advert.”
Still, the potential for danger is there to anyone buying or selling, regardless of the platform, "whether you are online dating, advertising an open house via estate agents or pinning an advertisement to the actual window of your car".
It makes sense to use local suppliers who know the scams doing the rounds in your neck of the woods and to follow their guidelines, says Erken.
And if a deal seems too good to be true, it usually is. One of the most common current scams is the so-called petrol scam.
"Advertisements pop up for high quality, high end goods such as new cars at very low prices," says Erken.
When you want to see the item on offer, the seller claims not to have enough money to drive to you, and asks for R100 or R200 to cover petrol costs. Inevitably, once the money has been transferred the seller disappears into thin air.
Pet sales, as with the Fin24 user quoted above, are another hot favourite. These are often emotional purchases and buyers are lured by their heartstrings to pay for non-existent pets upfront.
Keep it safe
So how can you safeguard yourself against the perils and pitfalls?
Erken provides the following guidelines:
• Know the potential buyer/ seller – have a name, telephone number, place of work and the contact details at hand.
Always verify these details and ask for alternative numbers, emails, a utility bill or payslips.
• As an extra safety precaution, always have a friend accompany you when meeting a prospective buyer/seller and do this in a very public place, such as a police station.
• Don't be in a hurry to transact. Trust your instincts - if something doesn’t feel right, move on to the next buyer/seller.
• Leave your valuables at home when meeting with a prospective buyer/seller.
• Cash or electronic transfers should be your preferred method of trade. Accepting goods such as jewellery, investment opportunities or stocks as an alternative for cash is not a good idea.
• Wait for deposits to clear before handing over any goods and don’t trust SMS notifications as proof of payment.
Trust your gut
A seller who seems almost too keen to get rid of the item and even agrees to a huge drop in the asking price should immediately arouse suspicion.
• When buying a car, check with your local police station that it has not been reported as stolen. Ask an expert to accompany you to view and test drive the car, or ask for a roadworthy test upfront.
• When renting property, avoid holding deposits.
Fraudsters have been known to ask for holding deposits or a month’s rent in advance and give the impression that a deal for the rental of the property has been included.
This is a common occurrence as the fraudster then disappears with the deposits, leaving many victims behind. Ensure that valid contracts are in place before parting with a deposit, and that you have access to the property.
• When buying a pet, arrange to meet at the vet of your choice to get a professional opinion on the condition of the animal and the verification of pedigree, etc. This should deter scammers.
While making classified transactions, be wary and vigilant to ensure that you are not a victim to crime. “Trust your gut,” Erken advises.
“If a situation makes you feel the slightest bit uncomfortable, rather be safe and avoid the deal entirely.”
Online classifieds are no more dangerous than other form of advertising, but the onus remains on both the buyer and the seller to take every safety precaution possible before conducting a transaction.
And if you do fall prey to fraud or scams, be sure to report this to the customer care contact number that should be visible on the website that you are transacting on.
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