Be wary of crooks on online selling platforms

Crooks are online in their numbers, preying on sellers, especially those selling electronics such as laptops and cellphones.
Crooks are online in their numbers, preying on sellers, especially those selling electronics such as laptops and cellphones.
Image: 123RF/dolgachov

Here’s a fun Covid fact — demand is y outstripping supply on the free classified site Gumtree.

And the items most in demand have a lot do to with lockdown, understandably. So if you’ve garden equipment, outdoor furniture, gym equipment, printers, office chairs — anything to do with enhancing the home environment or enabling working from home, such as laptops, office chairs, printers — now is the time to sell it, says general manager Claire Cobbledick.

But the crooks know that, too, and they are online in their numbers, preying on sellers, especially those selling electronics such as laptops and cellphones.

“Mia” fell victim to one a few weeks ago.

She’d bought a laptop from a major electronics retailer for R4,990, but quickly realised it wasn’t suitable for her music editing needs. So she advertised it for sale on Gumtree at R5,200, adding “negotiable” in the hope that she’d get what she’d paid for it.

A man responded, offering to pay the full price, saying he needed it urgently. That was the first red flag — why wouldn’t a genuine buyer negotiate on a “negotiable” price?

The crook sent Mia an SMS “from his bank”, showing a pending payment, and said he’d send “one of his IT guys” to fetch the laptop.

It turned out to be an Uber driver, but Mia was none the wiser.

The fraudster then sent a fake SMS from his bank “confirming payment” and Mia handed her laptop to the Uber driver, despite him asking her: “Are you sure this isn’t a scam?”

Off went the Uber and — surprise! — the buyer ignored all Mia’s Whatsapps from then on.

“We urge sellers to act with extreme caution,” Cobbledick said. “Don’t reveal personal details, don’t allow yourself to be rushed to close a sale, make absolutely sure that the buyer’s money is in your account before you hand over the goods, and trust your gut.

“We also ask that anyone who has a negative or worrying Gumtree-related experience flags it with us immediately.”

Lisha du Plessis was also targeted by a scammer when she advertised her iPhone on Gumtree in early June.

As in Mia’s case, he responded to her ad by asking if they could communicate via Whatsapp.

And he also said he would be sending a colleague — “one of my drivers” — who turned out to be a driver from ride-hailing service Bolt.

“Luckily for me the driver recognised it as a scam and told me not to send the phone,” Du Plessis says.

“He said I should rather wait for the money to clear in my account. The scammer then called the driver from a private number to check whether he had the phone and sent a fake proof of payment notification from Nedbank.

And that’s when Du Plessis’s scam detector started pinging, loudly.

“I could see the email was from a personal gmail account and not from the bank itself,” she says.

“He also sent through a photo of an ID card in the name of Lloyd M, obviously stolen from someone else. And he said the payment would be from a business account. So I googled the name of the company used as a reference and it was a panel beaters in Namibia.”

Other red flags for her were the fact that the pretend-buyer didn’t request photos of the phone and expressed no desire to see the second-hand phone in person.

“And when I told him I was going to wait for the money to clear, he got really angry, accusing me of wasting his time. Then he made up a story about how he had to go into work especially to make the payment.”

So she hung on to the phone and later the Bolt driver shared with her a threatening message he’d got from the scammers, along the lines of: “You’ve started a war you cannot end.”

If you’re thinking “why not just insist on cash, as a seller?” the pandemic is playing very nicely into the hands of scammers as cash payments are not considered safe, given the risk of virus transmission.

The country’s biggest online retailer, Takealot, will not accept cash-on-delivery payments for this reason.

But there is a safe way to buy and sell single items, using a trusted escrow platform.

Ian Harrison, CEO of one of them — Cape Town-based 3PayMe — explains: “The seller creates a virtual sales tag for the item on sale, with the item description and price, and when done, they get a unique tag reference code and a direct URL link to that tag.

“The buyer will be given this information to make payment and they then go onto 3PayMe and do so, using their debit or credit card or using a direct EFT option.

“Once they have paid, they are given a secret PIN that they will later give to the seller for the seller to release the money into their account.

“And once payment is made, the seller gets notified that payment has been made but they don’t get the payment yet. When the transaction is concluded and the goods change hands, the buyer gives the seller the secret PIN which they then use on the 3PayMe platform to release the money into their account.”

It’s an easy-to-use and manage platform, Harrison says, and the site has been set up to look like an app when viewed on a mobile device “so navigation is fast and use is really easy and intuitive”.

Other escrow service providers operating in SA include: Standard Bank’s escrow service  and  Paysho:

Better safe than sorry!


GET IN TOUCH: Contact Wendy Knowler for advice with your consumer issues via e-mail at or on Twitter @wendyknowler.





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