‘Excellent, a pasta maker!’

At the end of the Christmas period, many of us will be in possession of things that are brand new and so useful that they displace existing things (a larger TV, a warmer coat etc.) and things that are brand new and soon to be useless (pasta makers, fondue sets, novelty Christmas jumper etc.). Either way, the result is the same: we will own something that we would like to offload. There’s a few ‘traditional’ ways to do it:

  1. You could give it to charity or a friend (or a friend in need of charity!).
  2. You could return it the shop for a refund or voucher.
  3. You could try to sell it to other people for cold hard cash.

If you choose to go through door number three, you will probably end up on a classifieds website, or an online marketplace. These are wonderful modern inventions – virtual meeting points which allow buyers and sellers to quickly find each other and arrange transactions. Most transactions go smoothly, but there has been enough media coverage of scams and ‘meetings gone wrong’ to suggest that there is one deep flaw in the process: on the majority of classified websites, we don’t really know who we are talking to.

The issue works against, or for, both buyers and sellers. To register with most sites, all that is needed is an email account. Faces aren’t revealed, names aren’t verified, no card details are registered and in terms of address, a postcode is generally sufficient (and certainly not verified). Conversations that are started in the platform often switch to mobile messaging once numbers are exchanged in order to facilitate meetings, and from that point on the safety of the sale or purchase is completely in the hands of the two parties.

But that is really the beauty of these platforms, isn’t it? That easygoing, freedom of choice to engage with anyone who is willing to engage with us. In 99% of cases, this works well, particularly around the festive season. Back in 2011, Gumtree estimated that around £2.4 billion would flow through the site thanks to unwanted Christmas presents. That’s a lot of people meeting and trusting a lot of other people. But how can we better protect the 1% who have a negative experience in classified websites?

After the fatal stabbing of a man who had arranged to meet and sell a laptop, Conservative London Assembly member Tony Arbour, who was on the Greater London Authority’s online crime working group, stated that classified websites needed to “sort out their business model”. He says: “It seems to me this is not for a regulator to force classified websites to do, but for them to do themselves or they face losing customers.”

Arbour’s proposal that the websites enforce a way of verifying user identities is hopeful but not impossible. Airbnb, another virtual meeting place for two willing parties, offers a ‘Verified ID’ option which people may be asked to complete under certain circumstances (such as the host requiring a guest to do it before agreeing to let them stay). Aside from it not being mandatory for all, it also points out that it is not a ‘guarantee of someone’s identity’ – and reports of scams are still frequent. For classifieds websites hoping to create a safer trading community while retaining that ‘freedom to engage’ environment, an optional yet highly assured form of identification will be the key, as will its ease of use. The good news is that a consumer friendly way of confirming identities digitally is on its way…

Yoti is a free smartphone app that turns your passport or driving licence into a digital identity. You can choose what parts of your ID you want to show (just name, or age and name, or just a selfie etc.) and, most importantly for classifieds, you can exchange this information with people before you meet up with them, as easily as you send a text message now. Theft and fraud is less likely to take place when the perpetrators know you have their real identity information. You can find out more about our work here.

These kinds of big industry changes take time and perseverance. The speed at which Yoti is adopted, for example, will depend on how supportive the website owners are and how much effort they put into protecting their users. We aim to put the classifieds community in a position where, if more assurance is wanted, it’s easily found. We are confident you’ll have the tools to make your online (and offline) world that much safer in early 2016. In the meantime, here are our top tips for staying safe when selling unwanted presents online:

  • Never send an item through the post if the payment has not arrived into your own account.
  • If possible, do not invite the buyer to your home – meet in a public place.
  • Take someone with you to meet the buyer, particularly if it is of a high value and easily lifted (like a phone or tablet).
  • If the buyer must come to your home, make sure someone is with you, and try to limit how much you move around the house – the less the buyer sees, the better.
  • Be wary if the buyer is willing to pay a lot more for the item than you asked for – it could be a ploy to get you to carry more money to the meeting place.
  • Ask for ID when you meet (and warn them that you are going to ask them before they arrive to buy the item). Tell them they can cover any part they don’t want to share.

By Alex Harvey
Ask me anything: @alextharv