Gumtree clamps down on listings of looted goods - but says it has been quiet

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Gumtree is looking out for looted items sold on its platform
Gumtree is looking out for looted items sold on its platform
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  • Gumtree says it is looking out for looted goods sold on its platform. 
  • There has not been a spike in activity on the site over the past week.
  • Gumtree is specifically keeping an eye on refrigerators, flatscreen TV's and cellphones as these items are more in demand at reduced prices. 

Online classified platform Gumtree says it is on the lookout for looted goods being sold on its platform and is keeping a keen eye on white goods and electronics, particularly those listed in KwaZulu-Natal. 

It is also using additional filters, as well as digital tracking methods, to ensure it catches potentially suspicious listings.

And if a listing appears suspicious, the user may be asked to provide proof that they bought it or risk their ad being taken down.  

Finding something fishy

Parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal were hit by civil unrest last week, sparked by the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma. The unrest caused billions of rands in damage - though the financial impact is still being tallied - and cost hundreds of lives. 

Authorities have been recovering some looted items, but others, not recovered and unwanted, stand a chance of being sold, including on online marketplaces such as Gumtree.

Claire Cobbledick, director of Gumtree South Africa, told Fin24 that the platform has measures in place to weed out looted items from the site. 

The first priority was to set up a dashboard to track daily volumes of listings in KwaZulu-Natal in particular.

"We've been tracking to see if there is activity out of the ordinary. We found, interestingly, that not just in KwaZulu-Natal but countrywide there was a massive decrease in activity. I think people were so distracted, as we all were, watching the scenes unfold.

"Over the past week there has been a reduction not just in listing activity but also visits and replies. Traffic has been down. Recently, we have seen a little bit of recovery in terms of listing in KwaZulu-Natal," said Cobbledick.

But they are not taking any chances, according to Cobbledick.

When listing an item on Gumtree one has to put in keywords to determine which content is relevant to a particular search query which then provides the user with the most accurate search results. But, for Gumtree, this is one way to catch looters trying to list stolen items.

Tracking and filters

"There are different ways in which we try to prevent scams such as fraudulent ads or stolen items on the site. We filter, for any listing, a bunch of different keywords.

"There is also a back-end check for user profiles on digital footprints. A user with multiple IP addresses or linked to activity in different locations can be spotted. If there is a negative score, that listing is blocked immediately," said Cobbledick.

Further, Cobbledick explained there is a scoring system in place which checks various things before a listing goes live. It checks whether the user is new or an existing user and checks the price of the item and the category.

"Over this period, we have changed the scoring a little bit and we have added additional items and words into our filter. So, anything with the keywords 'unused', 'brand new', 'in the box', as well as a focus on KwaZulu-Natal means that we are pushing additional listings into manual moderation for checking."

High-risk goods

Massmart, the owner of Makro, Game and Cambridge Food, said 41 stores had been looted during the past week's violent civil unrest.

Massmart was one of the retailers affected by the looting and has the kind of items that would sell on Gumtree, for example. And Gumtree is keeping a close eye on such items.

"The items that trade very liquid on the site would be electronics and household appliances. Big-screen TV's, refrigerators, cellphones, those are the items we are really keeping a close eye on because there is a high demand for those items and for a good price. Clothes, books, sports equipment would turn slightly slower," said Cobbledick.

According to Cobbledick, it is difficult to discern if something is stolen or not, "but as part of our policy, it's a subjective decision, we don't have to prove whether something is stolen".

"Our support team can make a subjective decision not to make an ad go live. But what we are doing in this instance is requesting proof of purchase or a reason for selling the item if there is something that comes across as little usual or untoward.

"We are just applying a much higher level of caution and care. And we have been pleased so far to see there hasn't been a spike of activity," said Cobbledick. 

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