Gumtree is – by accident it says – offering to help you buy 'stolen goods' in South Africa
- A Google search for anything from stolen bikes to stolen phones in South Africa will currently point users to Gumtree.
- Access it via such a search, and Gumtree will tell you that it carries advertising for "stolen goods" and similar phrases.
- Gumtree says this is the result of a search engine indexing error.
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Classifieds site Gumtree seems to be promoting itself as a great place to buy "stolen” items in South Africa, though it is doing so unwittingly, it says.
A cursory Google search relating to various types of commonly stolen items in South Africa suggests that the platform is offering to connect buyers with sellers for everything from “stolen bikes” to “stolen iPhones in South Africa”.
If these are a bit too specific, there’s also a broader, enthusiastic catchall category to help searchers “Find stolen goods in South Africa!”.
The listings are all legitimate links to Gumtree pages, that lead through to search results pages on the Gumtree site.
Those pages tell visitors that they have found "64 Ads for 'stolen goods' in South Africa", in one case.
Google allows companies to bid on keywords - so that when a user searches for those words on Google, ads for the company appear near the search results. But the Google entries Business Insider South Africa saw were for organic search results, which are not paid for, but the output of Google's closely-guarded algorithm.
Gumtree head of communications Estelle Nagel told Business Insider that the company “would not bid on keywords related to stolen phones, drugs, sexual trafficking or anything else prohibited by our policies, as the safety of our customers are our top priority.”
Gumtree indexes its own keywords across listings on its sites, and those include entries – written by the sellers using Gumtree as a platform to reach buyers – offering phones that aren’t stolen. In other instances, an advertiser on Gumtree may be trying to track down a bicycle that was stolen, and the word "stolen" would be associated with that listing too.
That means Gumtree has internal search results pages that appear to be for stolen items, and those are listed by Google.
“Google picks up the word ‘stolen’ and indexes it as relevant to someone looking for the phrase ‘stolen + phone’. When you search ‘stolen phone’ it takes you to our Search Results Page,” Nagel says.
Gumtree thinks it is included on Google results for stolen items "as Google believes our site may be a source of information for someone seeking info on stolen phones."
Gumtree denied that the "stolen" ads may be used to drown out any negative comment around stolen items on the site, though that appears to be the effect.
Searching Google for complaints about fraud or illegal activity on the Gumtree platform will, testing showed, nearly always return results on Gumtree itself, pushing complaints down the rankings where they are less likely to be seen.
Gumtree was started in the United Kingdom almost a decade ago, and launched in South Africa in 2005. It rapidly became the country’s go-to online classified service, and according to website analytics company Alexa, it’s still comfortably in the top 20 of most visited sites in the country.
Like many other online classifieds, Gumtree has historically been beset by scams, and one used by criminals as a vehicle through which to sell stolen goods.
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