Online fraud is usually thought of as something that banks are forced to tackle. But Ramy Mikati has seen that scammers have made the Internet their playground. The founder of the online classified ads site, www.KingdomSale.com, Mikati spends hours each day ensuring that his site is a safe place for consumers in Saudi Arabia.
A civil engineer, Mikati lived in Montreal, Canada for 25 years before coming to Saudi Arabia about a year and a half ago to take up a position at Almabani General Contractors in Jeddah. Looking for gently used furniture and appliances, he searched online for local classifieds and found that the available sites were very disappointing.
"I was surprised that there so few of these sites targeting Saudi Arabia," he remarked. "About the only really big one for English speakers is expatriates.com and that site offers a very poor user experience. Expatriates.com is just basic HTML pages. It wasn't interactive and it was so hard to find anything through the site, that it wasn't useful."
Mikati decided to start a simple, well-presented website that would help expatriates find the things they needed at prices they could afford. Although not a specialist in web development, Mikati had some familiarity with web pages and networking as IT had been an interest for years. He registered KingdomSale.com, did part of the site's design himself and friends gave him some help with more complex web development issues. Four months ago the site went live. Friends and co-workers helped get the news out about the free classifieds and then a search engine optimization pushed KingomSale.com up Google's rankings.
Soon traffic to the site increased and the scammers quickly got the message that a new Internet property was available for them to ply their nefarious schemes. But they hadn't counted on Mikati being prepared to fight back.
"The increase in traffic was excellent. KingdomSale.com is just a hobby, but I was really happy when it started to do well and the number of classified ads began to pick up. Unfortunately, the more traffic the site got the more scammers there were," he said. "The main scams were people trying to post ads about exotic pets that are unavailable in Saudi Arabia. There were also some fraudulent advertisements about cars and scammers wanted to sell the iPhone 5 for a low, low price."
A strategy was in place though to keep unsavory activities off KingdomSale.com. Through his Google AdSense account, Mikati had already blocked a number of categories from Google's AdWords advertisements which run on the site. Dating, religion and pornography ads were among those prevented from appearing. Then he looked at the network locations of the criminals attempting to post fraudulent classified ads. He noticed that a lot of scammers were coming from certain countries in Africa, such as Nigeria, and blocked the entire national IP range for those countries to keep them out. The final hurdle that scammers have to leap is Mikati, himself.
"I approve every advertisement posted to the site," he explained. "One of the things I always check for is whether the IP address is coming from within the Kingdom or if it's from outside Saudi Arabia. If there's a Saudi phone number that's a good indication that the ad is legitimate. If it's a vehicle classified, I look for s Saudi license plate on the car. I'd be very suspicious if the photo showed the car beside a river or next to some trees that don't grow in Saudi Arabia. I have programmed the site in such a way that every time there's a new ad to be posted, I get an alert to my phone. Whenever I have a few minutes, at lunchtime or waiting for an appointment, I can check the ad within my phone and approve it right away. I also spend at least an hour or two every night with my home computer approving ads and doing maintenance on the site."
Mikati pointed out that many of the international classified ads sites are run without human intervention and that isn't the safest method of operation for consumers. He thinks it's important for site owners to be vigilant and try several different tactics to keep site visitors safe.
"I have a blog at KingdomSale.com and part of the reason for that is so people see that there is someone behind this website giving advice and looking out for visitors' safety," Mikati said. "I always tell people to make transactions locally. There's a prominent warning on the homepage advising people not to transfer money or pay for items in advance. Meet the person and deal with them face to face when the time comes to exchange cash and sale items."
Furniture, electronics and cars are the three most popular sales categories at KingdomSale.com. Using Google ads helps Mikati cover the registration, hosting and Internet costs associated with the site. He thinks in a few months he'll break even on his expenses, but has no intention of profiting from the website.
"I'm a civil engineer with a great job. This is just something fun for me to do and it makes me feel good that people find the site helpful," Mikati said. "I view KingdomSale.com as a community service and it gives me something enjoyable and useful to do with my free time."