(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)
With news of the latest Trade Me auction scam breaking this week, it might be a good time to take a fresh look at online safety.
On Monday, our Queenstown-based reporter Lin Ferguson reported on a now-banned Trade Me member who sold non-existent laptops and then skipped the country, leaving 20-odd traders out of pocket to the tune of nearly $20,000.
Unfortunately, these types of scams aren’t uncommon. While the amount of money taken in this example is on the high side, it isn’t the first time a trader has pulled off a scam of this scale.
Trade Me’s standard piece of advice is that traders should use escrow service SafeTrader.
With this option, the buyer pays their money into a holding account, where it stays until the seller provides the goods.
It all sounds good in theory but I’d feel more comfortable if Trade Me didn’t actually own the escrow company it promotes.
For every transaction through SafeTrader, Trade Me pulls in a further 3.5 percent in fees.
The other regular problem traders complain about with SafeTrader is the time factor — in these days of instant online gratification, sellers want their cash tomorrow, not next week or later.
Some of the safeguards suggested by traders and internet watchdog group Scambusters include compulsory address verification and authentication for sellers.
Address verification involves having Trade Me send a code to your registered postal address, which you enter online to show you really do live at the address provided.
Authentication is where traders credit their Trade Me account with $10 for the first time, resulting in a red star beside their user name.
These two simple measures would weed out a lot of the potential scammers, although it has to be remembered that the latest lowlife uncovered in the laptop scam had done both of these things.
A third option advocated by Scambusters is using IP lookup technology to block overseas scammers.
Trade Me doesn’t like discussions about potential or proven scams taking place on its message boards.
I guess that’s fair enough — it is Sam Morgan’s site after all and he gets the final say on what members may or may not get to read.
There’s many a trader been banned from using the message board for daring to suggest the possibility of anything untoward happening.
In fact, it was a series of bannings that led to the formation of Scambusters.
Interestingly, while some traders have been banned at the speed of light for breaching the do-not-talk-about-other-traders rule, other issues that have been raised on the message board have been totally ignored — such as one trader using three usernames (something Trade Me says is not allowed) and accumulating big chunks of negative feedback.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still the best online auction site this side of the black stump but it can be improved.
For now, protect yourself by checking feedback before bidding.
Look for sellers who are address verified and authenticated.
For larger purchases, consider using Safe Trader and, as a final measure, join Scambusters.