Seller beware: Online classifieds in SA are a crapshoot

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Online shopping is neatly separated into two different experiences.

The first, where you get to deal with retailers and legitimate resellers, is an absolute delight. You log onto one of the many online shops available in South Africa, browse the selection of wares, get the product you want, fill your cart, pay electronically, and wait for delivery. The only way things could get better is if we had some sort of same-day delivery system and a one-click purchase button, a la Amazon.

Then you get the murky world of online classifieds. Websites like Junkmail, Gumtree, and OLX, where – with some patience and savvy – you can hunt for bargains.

I recently tried selling something online. My options, as listed here, were three of South Africa’s most popular classifieds sites. Off to Gumtree I went, one evening, placing a free ad for the old laptop I wanted to flog. A few hours passed and there were no responses – I just assumed nobody was interested. The next morning I had five replies.

The only thing too good to believe, here, is that it's really John Cleese in the Santa suit.
The only thing too good to believe, here, is that it’s really John Cleese in the Santa suit.

“Great,” I thought to myself, “I’ll get this off my hands and pocket some cash for my next project, in next to no time.”

Except, it was not to be. Respondent #1 was a scammer. Years on the internet (and previous experience on Gumtree) have trained my human spam filters very well. I now know that any mail starting with, “My dear friend, I was pleased to read your advert. Could you tell me more? What is your final price?” is probably somebody I don’t want to do business with.

It was easy to fish out, too. I’d provided an extensive spec listing for the item I was selling, along with describing its present condition. If only he’d read the whole ad.

Respondent #2 offered to swap his old iPhone 4S. No thanks, chap. Not only do I not need another smartphone, I already have one I like very much. Besides, the ad already stated that I wanted cash only.

Respondent #3 was very much in need of a new laptop, but had no cash. Instead, he offered imported suspension parts for a Mk1 VW Golf – a car I don’t own – as a trade. He even pointed out that the parts were worth more than my asking price. Clearly, I’d been offered the bargain of the year. But since I wasn’t in the mood to place another ad for VW suspension bits that don’t fit my Honda, I passed.

Respondent #4 had neither the cash nor suspension parts, so instead offered me half of my asking price. Not feeling charitable, I hit delete once again.

The last reply to my ad was yet another scammer. From his reply, “I AM INTERESTED DERECK078xxxxxxx” I could only deduce that he was in a big hurry and had no time for small talk. Scamming is hard, time-consuming work.

For fun, I Googled the cellphone number. It showed up on a number of sites as belonging to a Nigerian (ahem…) gentleman who was often involved in selling goods. Apologies to any other entrepreneurial Nigerians who might get tripped up by my cautious habits, but PRINCE DERECK from Lagos can only win so many lotteries before I become wary of his luck. And intentions.


My experience is clearly not an isolated case. The most common questions on Gumtree’s helpdesk deal with helping users avoid fraud by reporting dodgy sellers. But most of the tips centre around protecting buyers: a big problem when the buyers are the criminals, and we all know how criminals feel about adhering to the law. With a fake chequebook and silver tongue, a faceless stranger on the internet can easily make a living off gullible people. Using a classifieds site is as much a case of “buyer beware” as it is a case of “seller beware”.

Ultimately, I removed my ad from Gumtree and ended up using a local forum. The buyer there ended up being somebody I’d known for 6 years. I was happy to hand over the goods without payment, because I knew him well enough. He transferred the money a few hours later. There’s a lot to be said for an online community where people are held accountable.

From now on, my Gumtree exploits will be limited to browsing for bargains. Maybe I’ll find a cheap Mk1 Golf – I’ve got a guy I can call for some imported suspension parts.


Christo van Gemert

Christo van Gemert

Eleven years ago Christo started writing about technology for one of South Africa's (then) leading computer magazines. His first review? A Samsung LCD monitor. Hey, it was hot news, back then. Nowadays he gets more excited about photography, cars, game consoles, and faster internet connections. He's sort of an Apple fan, but will take any opportunity to remind you about his Windows-powered home theatre PC and desire to own a vanilla Android tablet.   Currently uses: Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, Apple iPhone 5, Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000, Audiofly AF78 Earphones, Xbox 360, Nikon D50.