The vast majority of transactions arranged through internet classified sites such as Kijiji, Craigslist and eBay are initiated by honest citizens looking to conduct legitimate business. But Tuesday's announcement that police had located the charred remains of Hamilton resident Tim Bosma offers a painful reminder that e-commerce can have a dark side too, they said.
The bustling world of online trade has plenty of pitfalls for both buyers and sellers, safety experts say, suggesting the classifieds landscape is more perilous now than when ads appeared in the newspaper.
Steve Tissenbaum, professor of retail management at Ryerson University, said the relative anonymity of the internet makes it much easier for would-be con artists to find their footing.
Newspaper classifieds required sellers to correspond with another human being to set up an account, he said, ensuring that they, at least, received a higher level of scrutiny. Online, however, Tissenbaum said both sellers and buyers can operate in relative secrecy if they choose.
"Now you have Kijiji and Craigslist, which you can set up with any email account," Tissenbaum said in a telephone interview. "It's not that easily traced and therefore much more dangerous."
Despite the risks, online commerce is the order of the day and all parties should make sure they're well-equipped to conduct their business safely, he said.
Const. Tony Vella of the Toronto Police Service agreed, advising both buyers and sellers to take precautions at all stages of a transaction.
Sellers should be careful about the personal information they disclose on their ads, he said, adding no one should post details such as a home phone number that can be easily traced through a reverse lookup.
Tissenbaum urges even greater caution, advising posters not to include their own email addresses on their ads.
The level of disclosure should ramp up once contact has been established, they said. Both parties should be prepared to answer questions about their full names and contact details. Once both sides have agreed to do business, Tissenbaum and Vella insist any meetings should take place in a public place during the day.
If the goods in question can't be moved from the seller's home, Vella suggests having someone on hand to keep an eye on the proceedings. He said both buyers and sellers should bring a friend into the loop by letting them know of any potential meeting plans.
Tissenbaum goes one step further.
"You don't go if you don't have a friend," he said. "It's as simple as that. Why would you? What's so important that you'd put yourself at risk?"
Vella urges both sides to insist on seeing identification, such as a driver's license, and noting down any key details. People with dubious intentions will likely balk at such precautions and look for a less discerning target, he said.
He also urged buyers to question sellers about the source of their goods to make sure they won't inadvertently be going home with stolen property.
Closing a transaction also has its perils, he said, adding sellers should only accept cash or certified cheques once the deal is done.
Tissenbaum said another approach is to conduct all financial transactions online using Paypal or e-transfers to remove the temptations that cash may pose to predators.
Above all, Vella said there's no substitute for common sense.
"Go with your gut feeling. If you suspect something is wrong, you're probably right."