Do I really need that couch? Facebook Marketplace is a playground for criminals, say crime experts, following death of two brothers



Published Apr 14, 2024


The murder of two brothers in Gqeberha after they responded to an advert on Facebook Marketplace to buy a television, has raised the critical question: How safe is Facebook Marketplace?

Criminal experts have weighed in on the conversation, with the general consensus being that Facebook Marketplace is no longer safe, and secondly reminded consumers that there is no such thing as a bargain.

Speaking about the most recent incident, Eastern Cape police spokesperson Colonel Priscilla Naidu said last weekend brothers Aaron Alberts, 19, and Kyle Alberts, 30, from St Albans responded to an advert for a TV set for sale on Marketplace, only to be lured under false pretences, robbed, and tragically shot to death.

“Their cellphones, cash, and vehicle were all taken, with the perpetrators providing a wrong address to mislead them.”

Naidu said the brothers went to a house in Ceru Steet in NU 5 in Motherwell and were informed that no such advert was placed, and the occupants of the house bore no knowledge of any sale.

“While still at the address, they were approached by two suspects who shot and robbed them. The bakkie was recovered not far from the crime scene,” said Naidu. To date, police have made no arrests.

Following the brutal murders, police warned the public that a heinous acts such as this serves as a stark reminder of the dangers associated with online transactions.

“We urge the public to exercise caution and diligence when using social media platforms to make purchases,” said Naidu.

“Verify the credibility of sellers, conduct transactions in safe locations, and consider involving law enforcement if there are any suspicions.”

Nelson Mandela Bay district police commissioner, Major General Vuyisile Ncata said this was not the first time that people have fallen victims to such scams, however, this is the first that lives were lost.

“We are urging people to report to the police station and request police to accompany you, instead of going on your own.”

It is the year of the gun

Echoing similar sentiments was Mike Bolhuis, private investigator and director of Specialised Security Services based in Gauteng, who urged people to stay away from online buying on Facebook Marketplace.

“You cannot trust it anymore, it is dangerous.”

Bolhuis said this incident where two brothers were killed, was not an isolated incident, “however, it is one of the few cases that have been reported to police”.

He said these incidents include people losing their lives and coming under extreme attack that has left them traumatised.

“Only some cases reach the news. Facebook (Marketplace) is unfortunately dangerous grounds.”

It is important to do a thorough investigation before doing any buying and selling, you cannot just get involved.

“Do not fall for bargains, there is no such thing. Don’t drive out to a place you don’t have any idea about.”

Humans are seen as merchandise, they are killed for anything, even cellphones.

“The penny has to drop ... we are an extremely violent country due to corruption and a drop in our economy ... it is the year of the gun.”

Private investigator Mike Bolhuis says the media has to keep on passing this message on about Facebook Marketplace until it reaches every ear. Picture: Paballo Thekiso

Bolhuis asked people to conduct a risk-analysis.

“Ask yourself the question, Do I really need that couch?”

He said that maybe some people are not aware of the dangers.

“That is why we need to tell everybody about the dangers. Maybe these brothers didn’t think anything of this,” Bolhuis said.

“People think it’s innocent, why would someone shoot and kill me over a product? It is unfortunately there.”

There are more cases than being reported

Prem Balram from Reaction Unit South Africa (Rusa) said they deal with these scams very often.

“They meet with buyers and sellers and are robbed, shot, hijacked and so forth. I am currently dealing with a case where a lady had her bakkie for sale on Facebook marketplace,” Balram said.

“So criminals see these items advertised on Facebook and they try to get these items and set up meetings with no intention of buying it, but rather stealing it.”

Balram said these criminals are violent.

He said people who usually fall prey to these scams are people who are looking for bargains.

“For example, just say someone is looking to buy a car on Marketplace and they find one below the market related price,” Balram said.

“For fear it may be sold quickly, they fall prey to depositing money to secure the sale and then quickly find out the car never existed,” he said.

“And some people put in large amounts of money as deposit.“

Prem Balram from Reaction Unit South Africa deals with these scams regularly. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU

Balram said so often people are mocked on Marketplace after they are scammed.

“They tell the victims they have been scammed, and torment them.”

He said another popular trend is that buyers take cash to a point on sale.

“They are robbed of the cash and the items was never for sale.”

Balram said a lot of these victims don’t report these crimes to police out of embarrassment.

“The truth be told, the actual number of Facebook marketplace scams are much higher that actual reported cases.”

Five tips:

Meet at police stations. Meet a shopping malls.

Do not drive out to a place you are not familiar with.

Do a risk-analysis - talk about your purchase with five people, ask them their thoughts.

Don’t allow strangers near your house, or close to your property.

Rather advertise on private groups.

Bolhuis said the problem is that people want to sell things right now, and being hasty leads to them being scammed.

Why is Facebook Marketplace so popular?

Carey van Vlaanderen, CEO of ESET South Africa, a digital security company, said according to the 2021 / 2022 statistics, Facebook Marketplace passed one billion global users.

Carey van Vlaanderen, CEO of ESET South Africa. Picture: Supplied

“With this, it has become a giant in the consumer-to-consumer commerce space, allowing individual Facebook-users to buy and sell seamlessly.”

Van Vlaanderen said Marketplace has become so popular in South Africa that similar platforms are struggling to compete.

“Facebook Marketplace has outstripped the popularity of several online classifieds portals for several reasons. It is free and simple to use, as most people already have a Facebook account,”Van Vlaanderen said.

“It also allows users to search for listings from their local area, making pick-up much easier,” she said.

“Furthermore, because people can view sellers’ profiles, they feel more assured of safety and security on the site. Unfortunately, this is often a false sense of security.”

She said Facebook fraud is becoming increasingly common.

“One recent global survey revealed that one in six (17%) respondents have been defrauded on the site,” she said.

“Of course, while much of the commerce on this classified side of Facebook is legitimate, like any other online marketplace, it is also a haven for scammers,” Van Vlaanderen said.

“With fake listings extending to even apartment sales and car purchases, the stakes are high. That puts great pressure on users to understand the typical tricks that con artists use, and what they can do to avoid falling prey to online scammers.”

How to spot a Facebook Marketplace scam:

– Inspect items before purchasing by only buying from local sellers in your area.

– Always meet in a public place rather than at your home, ideally during daylight hours.

– Check buyer/seller profiles for user ratings and reviews and be cautious if the profile was only recently created.

– Check the original price of items and if there is a significant difference between the usual price and the sale price, be aware that it may be counterfeit/stolen/defective, etc.

– Beware of give-away deals and never enter your personal details to access them.

– Only use trusted payment methods via Facebook Messenger (PayPal, Facebook Checkout) as they offer a way to dispute payment. Gift cards, EFTs and services like eWallet and Instant Pay are commonly requested by fraudsters.

– Keep your conversation on Facebook – scammers like to move the conversation to another platform where it’s easier to swindle people and prevent them from disputing transactions.

– Never ship items before payment has been made and the money is reflecting in your account. Check your account to verify that the payment has been cleared. Do not accept an emailed “proof of payment” as these can be fraudulently generated.

– Do not send two-factor authorisation codes to prospective buyers. Under no circumstances should you ever share these types of codes.

If any red flags are raised and you suspect fraud, you should report the seller immediately via Facebook help.

“As the cost of living continues to soar, more users will be turning to online platforms like Facebook Marketplace to buy goods at discounted rates. More users mean more potential victims for scammers, so be cautious.”

Facebook responds

Responding a spokesperson for Meta told IOL: “All online marketplaces face challenges and ours is no exception, which is why we’re always working to prevent new ways to scam and defraud people.

“We provide clear advice on how to avoid scams, and buy and sell safely,” it said.

“Likewise, if we determine through either our proactive or reactive efforts that a listing violates any of our community standards and commerce policies we will take action including immediately removing the listing, or banning the seller from our platforms.”

Meta said they also encouraged their community to report buyers or sellers who aren't acting in good faith; there's a “Report Item” option on every product profile.

“If you see an item for sale that you believe violates Facebook's Commerce Policies, you can easily report the listing. You can also report buyers and sellers if you see activity that you think shouldn’t be on Facebook.”

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