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While advertisers may have spun “it’s a steal” into a sales pitch we are all too familiar with, if you’re not careful in the world of private sales that may be exactly what you get.

Gumtree is one of the most well-known classifieds site with its primary purposes allowing people to buy and sell from each other. Whilst this gives tens of thousands of people the freedom to sell unwanted property they’ve gotten over the years, it’s increasingly becoming a quick and easier way for criminals to turn their ill-gotten gains into cash.

Buyer beware

The terms of use of Gumtree, and many sites like it, restrict their legal liability to any sales conducted over their platform including any conduct by a use engaging in illegal conduct. This means if something shady is happening and the law comes knocking, you may be left in a tricky situation.

The Criminal Code makes it illegal to possess any stolen or unlawful property, or to receive stolen property, however there is one key component. The charges around this issue hinge upon your knowledge of where the property came from and how it came into the seller’s possession.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

So what kind of knowledge puts you in peril of criminal charges? There are two standards you can be held to: actual knowledge, and reasonable suspicion.

Reasonable suspicion means that you aren’t certain the items lawfully belong to the seller. Putting this into practice, if you took a step back and looked at all the circumstances and you believe there’s a chance the property is not theirs to sell, you have a reasonable suspicion.

Actual knowledge goes one step further and means that you are aware that the property you’re buying has been stolen or otherwise obtained illegally. This doesn’t necessarily mean you know the actual offence that was committed to get the item in the first place, just that it isn’t lawfully owned by the seller.

The difference between the two is fine, but it’s very important. If you have actual knowledge the property you’re buying was unlawfully obtained and the crime committed to obtain the property was serious, you can be charged with receiving stolen property. This bears a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment and must be dealt with in the District Court.

In circumstances where you only have a reasonable suspicion the property is unlawfully obtained but buy it anyway, you can be charged with possession of stolen or unlawfully obtained property. The maximum penalty is seven years imprisonment if heard in the District Court, but can be heard in the Magistrates Court where the maximum penalties are two years imprisonment and a fine of $24,000.00.

Protecting yourself

If a little knowledge can be dangerous, in this case more knowledge can be the solution. The best way to avoid coming into the possession of stolen property is to arm yourself with as much information as you can. Ask the buyer as many questions as you need to be certain you’re not being loaded up with stolen goods. Things you can do to protect yourself include:

  • Request proof of purchase;
  • Inspect the item for any markings indicating ownership and make sure they match with the seller;
  • If the property is normally registered with a governing body, check those records beforehand;
  • If the seller is acting on behalf of the property owner:
    • ask if you can speak with the owner; or
    • request a note signed and dated including the name of the seller and a description of the property to be sold;

Most importantly, when buying through pages like Gumtree or similar platforms look at the big picture and consider all the circumstances. If something about the sale, the property, or the seller seems “off”, it is far safer to look elsewhere than to gamble with a chance of a criminal record, fines or even imprisonment.

Most of us have a habit of researching what we want to buy and scour reviews for the best product and the best price. When buying privately it’s important to be just as careful with whom we buy from because, unlike your local stores, there is little protecting you if things go wrong.

Always investigate private purchases carefully and never go into a sale with lingering doubts. If you’re not sure about something, ask, and if that doesn’t get rid of the doubts it’s always smartest to walk away.

The contents of this blog post are considered accurate as at the date of publication. However the applicable laws may be subject to change, thereby affecting the accuracy of the article. The information contained in this blog post is of a general nature only and is not specific to anyone’s personal circumstances. Please seek legal advice before acting on any of the information contained in this post.

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