By Kotie Geldenhuys
A Free State farmer responded to an OLX advert from someone selling animal feed. "I wanted to buy cattle feed, so I deposited the R21 000 immediately after I verified the seller's banking details," he said. When he tried to contact the person selling the feed, the phone was off. The animal feed was never delivered. "I asked the bank to reverse the transaction, but it was too late. The bank said the money was already withdrawn," he said. The farmer then used the social networking site Facebook to warn other farmers about the online scam. "After I posted the warning on Facebook, one of the suspects contacted me and started to threaten to kill me if I don't remove the Facebook post," the farmer said (Chabalala, 2015).
This scenario is an example of how thousands of South Africans are defrauded daily by fraudsters using online classified adverts. Sometimes the victims are threatened if they dare to report the scam, but there are even incidents of victims being murdered. Many people consider themselves Internet savvy, but anyone can be the victim of a scam. The hard truth is that anyone who is active online is also vulnerable to the dangers that accompany interacting on the Internet.
How big is the problem?
Online customer service websites such as Hellopeter.com and reportacrime.co.za are flooded with complaints about scams that occur on classifieds sites such as Gumtree, JunkMail and OLX, but many of these cases are not reported to the authorities or to the relevant classifieds sites.
Felix Erken, the MD of JunkMail, is quoted as having said that the perception that online classified sites are rife with fraudulent posts or online scams is untrue and added that less than 1% of the adverts on their site are considered "fraudulent". "We eliminate most of them before they are ever published," he said. According to him, 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" (www.fin24.com/Money/ Money-Clinic/Savings/Gumtree-et-al-safeguard-yourself-20120904).
Mzekandaba (2016) adds that OLX claims that it has received fewer than ten reports from customers who were scammed in 2015.
How safe is it to use online classified ads?
Stephen Ballot, the national manager of OLX, argues that trading on classifieds sites is safe as long as users use common sense. "We ask people to only pay once they have seen the item. This tiny piece of common sense would cut out 90% of all scams," says Ballot (Mzekandaba, 2016).
Felix Erken from JunkMail is of the opinion that 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," he 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" (www.fin24.com/Money/ Money-Clinic/Savings/Gumtree-et-al-safeguard-yourself-20120904).