Watch out for online scam: Both buyers and sellers victims

BY: Suleiman Mustapha / Daily Graphic / Ghana

Ms Mavis Asantewaa  is 35 years. She was full of joy when several calls came through her mobile phone from prospective buyers of the Samsung galaxy tablet she had posted for sale.

A day after posting her ad on a free classified online platform, she set out to meet a prospective buyer to trade off her most prized asset for cash.

It was about 11:35 a.m. on Tuesday when Asantewaa weaved her way through the traffic-congested roads to  a huge warehouse at Okaishie in central Accra, where dozens of shelves stood stacked with a wide variety of products from electronics to kitchen utensils.

She met a lanky middle-aged man who introduced himself only as Nii Aggrey, who examined the galaxy tab and made an offer.  Asantewaa agreed.

The delight on Asantewaa’s face soon faded after waiting for Nii Aggrey who had entered another office in the shop ostensibly to bring the money for payment.

After more than an hour of waiting, a frustrated Asantewaa asked a shop attendant to call the supposed Nii Aggrey for her. The attendant replied, “there is no Nii Aggrey here.”

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Asantewaa became alarmed and went straight to the office only  to realise that it was a backdoor.

The mother of two raised the alarm, but alas, it was too late. The supposed buyer had absconded with her asset and there was no cash to meet her immediate needs.

“I am dead,” she screamed in a voice that attracted sympathetic onlookers. 

Internet use

The internet is gradually becoming a home to a burgeoning number of scams targeting consumers, investors and business owners. 

The proliferation of free classified online platforms has opened up a new market place that knows no borders.

Today, Ghanaians are even more empowered when it comes to buying a car, a house or even a smartphone due to the level of internet penetration and the emergence of classified online platforms.

Consumers in Ghana are increasingly turning on to websites such as Tonaton.com and other free classified online platforms to purchase a car or rent an apartment thereby cutting middlemen or agents out of the trade.

Unfortunately, this has also given scammers a new avenue to find victims who are looking for good deals online. 

There have been a few stories that have been told by consumers who have fallen victim to fraud in an attempt to  purchase a car or find a rental apartment via the internet. Different scams tend to affect buyers and sellers. 

The common variants include:

1. The “Price Too Good to Be True” scam

In this scam, a prospective buyer sees an attractive-looking car for a price well below market value. These cars are normally posted online from the northern parts of Ghana. When the buyer contacts the seller, he or she is asked to transfer money into an account to fuel the car for the journey down south.

When the money is transferred and collected, the “seller” breaks contact and the buyer loses money. There are instances where buyers have lost money by making part payments for the vehicles. 

The same can also be experienced in the online rental or sale of properties where they are advertised (usually at low costs) on online classified sites.

 The fraudsters use information and photos describing properties that have been “scraped” from legitimate ads. He or she will impersonate the landlord, property manager or estate agent and will respond to emails and calls from prospective tenants.

The scammer indicates he or she is unable to meet a prospective renter at the property, and instead proposes a meeting off site to exchange keys, sign a tenancy agreement and collect rental deposits. Victims may only learn they’ve been duped when they show up at a property to discover that it is already occupied.

2. The “Buyers” scam

In this scam, a legitimate seller posts an item like a tablet or mobile phone for sale. He or she is then contacted by a prospective “buyer” (really a scammer) who directs him to his “office.” These “offices” are normally located in busy places like hospitals or shopping malls. When the seller arrives, he or she is asked to give the item to the buyer for testing after which he or she is asked to wait for the buyer who enters his “office” ostensibly to bring the money for payment. The buyer absconds with the item through the “backdoor.” Normally it turns out that the people at the “office” where the transaction was carried out did not even know the identity of “buyer.”

The Marketing Manager of Tonaton.com, Mr Kwabena Opoku-Boakye, has warned internet users to be alert;  for these types of fraud are common in major markets where online trading is pervasive.

“There is very little an online classifieds platform can do to prevent people from parting with money before seeing an item they intend to buy. We have continuously been educating consumers through radio interviews on what some of these scammers can do and the reason why prospective buyers should not part with money when they’ve not seen the item,” he says.

Editor of Graphiconline, a commercial online platform, Mr Isaac Yeboah, said the credibility of the platform was an important measure of guarantee.“For us at Graphiconline, we tell you what is acceptable and what is not.”

He cautioned, “Do not part with your money unless you are sure of what you are buying through physical examination of the product.”

The Country Manager of Google, Ms Estelle Akofio Sowah, is also concerned about the spate of scam in online trading. She cautioned prospective sellers and buyers on the classified platforms to be extra vigilant.

On her part, Mrs Rita Offei, who is the Customer Support Manager of Tonaton.com, says the threat of these scammers informed the company’s decision to manually review all ads posted on the website by a local Customer Support team.

“The threat of these fraudsters to our business is real, and in addition to our manual reviews we have also boldly displayed on our home page ‘tit-bits on how to buy and sell safely on website,”‘ she says. 

Meanwhile, users of online platforms continue to display a lot of confidence in this new medium. This is underpinned by the number of items uploaded weekly online which is in excess of 20,000 nationwide.

 Seventy five per cent of these ads can be found on Tonaton.com alone. Over one  million visitors successfully continue to visit online classified websites on a monthly basis either to upload an item for sale or to look for an item to buy.

This is a testimony to the integral role these classified websites play in the economic lives of Ghanaians.