VarageSale values humans, not bots, to keep its marketplace safe
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Image Credit: VarageSale

Image Credit: VarageSale

This online marketplace emphasizes its human-moderated content curation against competitors like Facebook Marketplace

There is a never ending stream of horror stories about online marketplace meetups that turn into real-life disasters for the people involved, such as holdups where sellers were mugged by the buyers they met, or were found peddling stolen merchandise.

Obviously, a lot of these incidents can be avoided with simple common sense, like not giving money to people who demand money before going to “retrieve” the item, or running image searches on the items to check that they’re real and not, say, scammers just using stock photos or images from other sales to showcase goods they don’t actually have on hand.

Although automated systems can help neutralize these problems, human oversight is still needed. After all, even image detection tools can be tricked into not “seeing” illegal goods if they’re cleverly posed alongside legal ones in photographs. When it comes to monitoring these abuses, online marketplace VarageSale advertises that, “By having the human element of user and item moderation, we can nip suspicious activity in the bud,” in the words of Co-Founder Tami Zuckerman.

The Toronto-based online marketplace has raised $34 million to date and is updating its consumer protection policies, debuting a new Safety Pledge this month to further promote its biggest selling point: That real-time human oversight will keep VarageSale users from having any run-ins with crooks, trolls, or perverts. After a round of layoffs earlier this year, the company  which Tami Zuckerman and Carl Mercier founded in 2012 — says it is committed to improving its product and user experience.

Emphasis on volunteer and staff monitoring

The site does not believe in anonymity when it comes to buying and selling. “People join VarageSale through Facebook Connect,” Zuckerman explained to Geektime, and “Members can check to see if they have a mutual friend with someone and scope them out before deciding whether they want to transact with someone.”

“This feature further helps expose information about a member on VarageSale and makes buying and selling on our site more transparent,” as does the site’s user endorsements function, called Praises.

VarageSale promises 100% manual pre-screening by volunteer administrators and moderators, who are quality moderators for different communities on the platform, and a 24-hour safety hotline. At a minimum, users must provide a name, photo, location data, and an email, via Facebook Connect. VarageSale collects such information only insofar as is necessary or appropriate to fulfill the purpose of the visitor’s interaction with VarageSale.

Despite efforts to improve fraud reporting and verification of sellers, many online marketplaces simply don’t have the people and resources to verify everyone. For many buyers and sellers, having to wait several days for verification just to sell an iPhone or some shoes is regarded as too great an inconvenience. VarageSale, ideally, replies to member queries within 24 hours and tries to optimize response time by getting volunteer administrators who are local to an area.

They also count on their staff and volunteers to “know” their communities, to have enough rapport with the people present to know when something is off about a newcomer, or even an established member. Two things to especially watch out for, Zuckerman told Geektime, are requests to pay with certified checks or sellers who insist on concluding the business off of the platform. These are red flags for the moderators, along with any reported exchanges that constitute bullying and harassment.

One VarageSale user, Jessica, spoke to Geektime about her experiences with the platform. Since she works for a direct sales company, she is “constantly out delivering products to various clients,” and “always a bit apprehensive when meeting a new client at their home. But when you get real testimonials from other buyers/sellers that have worked with the other party, it gives you much greater peace of mind.”

Having used other platforms like LetGo and Craigslist, Jessica says she feels VarageSale is “the safest one and the most effective selling platform that I have joined thus far,” as she “had to wait to be approved and verified by the admin for each community.” She also says that the platform’s pre-screening option is very useful in her line of work, “because at that time, you can decide whether or not to move forward with the transaction and in addition you can decide whether to meet your buyer/seller at your place or in a more public area.”

This emphasis on community and checking members’ credentials may mean the site cannot grow as fast as other platforms, but it is the company’s hope that the improved safety experience will be a big attractor and help build that community up. Jessica did not come to VarageSale because security was her first priority, but now says, “I believe that if people really want to stay on a particular platform like VS that has awesome rules set up, they will be more mindful of how they post and their actions.”

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