My Facebook Marketplace Nightmare

Facebook's Digital Garage Sale Should Be Used with Care

How did we get into this mess? My wife stared disbelieving at her tablet while a steady stream of requests flowed in, all of them wanting to know how to get our old TV, where we lived, and if they could show up now. We’d used Facebook Marketplace for the first time, and it felt as if we’d unleashed the kraken on our unsuspecting home.

People reaching through computer
Lifewire /  Daniel Fishel

The drama started, for me, at least, with a simple question: Where does old technology go to live out its golden years? Mostly, it turns out, in landfills. According to the World Economic Forum, people (meaning you, me, and everybody else) produce about 50 million tons of it each year. Which is why my decade-old, 52-inch Sony Bravia HDTV is still sitting, unused, in my guest room.

After finally upgrading to a 65-inch 4K TV (which cost less than half of what I spent on that Sony HDTV in 2009), I just didn’t want to add to the problem or suffer nightmares of discarded flat-panel TVs line-dancing on my head as I slept. The TV still works, not perfectly but it can turn on and off, switch among its four HDMI ports, and produce a decent 1080p image. Someone must want this hulking 62.1-pound giant.

Our dumps don't need any more of my ewaste.  United Nations

Craigslist List

Remember Craigslist? It’s the digital replacement for the world’s classified ads and people around the world use it to list services and gently—and harshly—used furniture, cars, gadgets, and more.

I haven’t made a habit of selling things online. I’ve bought a few things on eBay and listed something once, neglecting to include the price of shipping and then ended up paying more to send it than I got from the buyer. Never again, I thought.

Craigslist, though, seems like a good option. The tools are straightforward: I could offer a clear description, photos, and even control the listing location. I listed it at the “to move” price of $50 and waited for the offers to start flowing in.

There was no flow, not even a trickle. I didn’t get a single nibble and the TV’s glossy black screen seemed to stare at me accusingly: How could I not accomplish this one simple task?

My old HDTV in its new "home," my guest room. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

A Better Way

It was my wife who suggested Facebook Marketplace, a surprise since virtually all tech ideas—both good and bad—tend to come from me.

Facebook Marketplace, which lives inside Facebook, is an online sales platform that launched four years ago as the friendlier online version of Craigslist. Considering my failure on that platform, I assumed that something “friendly” and theoretically more connected to our own personal social network might work better. It even uses artificial intelligence to streamline the buying and selling process.

We didn’t do it right away, but after a few more weeks of the TV not miraculously removing itself from my home, my wife asked me to send her a new photo of the TV and she whipped up a Facebook Marketplace listing. I noted that the tools for a listing were, if anything, even simpler than those found on Craigslist. Within a few minutes she had the post ready and hit publish.

Facebook Marketplace screen
I should've paid much closer attention to the phrases I underlined (later) on this Facebook Marketplace listing screen.  Facebook

The Flood

Nothing prepared us for what happened next.

Responses started appearing on my wife’s Facebook Messenger account almost immediately. At first, she was pleased. “Oh, look someone is offering $40,” said my wife. This even though we’d posted it as “if you can cart it off, it’s yours” (in hindsight, this was one of many posting mistakes).

Potential customers were appearing faster than either of us could read. It was a cacophony of commerce. The buyers were eager, maybe too eager.

“I can be there in 20 minutes,” said one.

“I come now. What’s you address?” said another.

One was super anxious to pay $50 and get it that day. We were having a lazy Saturday and asked if maybe the next day would be OK.

With that, the buyer stopped responding.

The more this went on, the less comfortable we became. Who were all these people?

As our anxiety grew, we realized that our listing put us in a position of potentially having to invite a stranger / buyer to our home. Giving out our home address to any of our potential Facebook Marketplace customers suddenly seemed like a very bad idea.

In a state of four-alarm panic, we pulled this listing, and, like a bad dream, all the responses vaporized with it.

Understanding Facebook Marketplace

I looked back on my wife’s Facebook Marketplace listing and realized that despite her having a relatively locked down Facebook account, at least on the privacy front, Facebook Marketplace operates more like a global garage sale listing.

To verify this, I took a closer look at the Facebook Marketplace listing template where it says in fine print, “Marketplace items are public and can be seen by anyone on or off Facebook.” Granted, the listing does include your town and Zip location for some geolocating, but there’s little clarity about how wide a net the system casts. After this listing, I would not be surprised to learn the listing appeared across most of Long Island.

The more this went on, the less comfortable we became. Who were all these people?

Below the “public” reminder is a listing of things Facebook Marketplace won’t let you sell including animals, drugs, weapons, and counterfeits (none of this is surprising) and a link to the Commerce Policies. Inside there I found a page on staying safe on Marketplace. After “protecting your privacy” is a section called “Meet in a safe location.” Basically, it says that if you plan to meet a buyer or seller, meet in a “public location.” Those words, I’m sure unintentionally, make Facebook Marketplace seem less safe and make me think that meeting at your house is probably not a good idea.

I briefly imagined myself lugging the 61-pound HDTV to a local Stop and Shop parking lot to meet my buyer, which feels a little too close to a drug buy for me.

Most online forums and Facebook groups I looked at, by the way, declare Marketplace as safe, but there have been a few Marketplace-related crimes.

Some of this is my fault; I didn’t read these instructions before I listed. Still, I think Facebook Marketplace could offer more guidance and warnings before you post something. I mean, there was no way of vetting all those potential buyers (I looked at the profile for one and it was a skeletal Facebook page) who seemed all too willing to visit my home on very short notice.

In fairness to Facebook Marketplace, I am certain that there were legitimate buyers in the hordes of interested parties but every single one of them seemed to be shouting at us and none were content to await our measured responses or show even a morsel of patience. The anxiousness to get this decade old TV just didn't make sense.

I will say that if I ever plan to hold a garage sale, which would be outside my home, this might be the most efficient way to get the word out. I have never seen an online commerce listing catch fire like that.

So What

In the future, and for more confidence that I’d be dealing with people I or at least my neighbors know, I’d probably go with Nextdoor. It only lets people in who can verify they are truly part of your neighborhood. I see Facebook Marketplace-style listings on it all the time, though most are people requesting services and not selling them.

I may try to sell or give away the TV that way or, when the weather clears up, drag the thing to the curb and put a big note on it that says, “I work. Take me!” and hope for the best. I’m sure someone will grab it and help me avoid the unbearable guilt of adding to our local landfill.

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