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Police Step In to Protect Craigslist Users

Thanks to the rise in Craigslist-related crimes, police departments around the US and Canada are creating safe trading zones for buyers and sellers who wish to meet in person to complete online transactions.

Among the first in the nation was the Boca Raton Police Department in Florida. Officer Sandra Boonenberg told EcommerceBytes the department used to advise people to meet in public places. But four incidents in the spring of 2014 prompted them to change that advice.

The four cases were robberies in which criminals posed as buyers on Craigslist, but attempted (and succeeded in three of the four cases) in stealing the items from the sellers.

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All of the crimes took place in public places, and in fact, the fourth criminal stole a MacBook Pro from a Craigslist seller inside a Starbucks cafe located in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, according to Boonenberg.

At that point, the Chief made the decision to create a “safe exchange zone” and launched a campaign in June 2014 to let the community know about it. The department handed out cards cautioning people about the risks of completing transactions in person. The front of the card read “Stranger Danger!….is not just for kids anymore! Buyers and sellers online are strangers, and could pose dangers. Please use our stations as a safe exchange zone.”

The back of the card had more information, starting out with, “While many people who conduct business online are honest and sincere in buying and selling their items, there are those who use it to facilitate their crimes. We are recommending you use a local police station lobby as a safe exchange zone to conduct your transaction.” It went on to offer advice about meeting with trading partners.

Sadly, police are also seeing other types of crimes against online buyers and sellers who meet in person, such as the 19-year-old woman who was attacked and raped when she went to meet an Etsy seller in person, according to this news report.

The idea behind the safe trading zones is that the 24-hour surveillance cameras and proximity of police officers act as a deterrent to criminals.

Several sites publish the locations of police stations and sheriff departments that offer their lobbies or parking lots as safe trading zones, such as SafeDeal.zone. Owner Brad Galbraith has a tech background, having started on the Internet in 1995 or so, with 10 years as a Chief Technology Officer. He now runs his own ecommerce website and is a self-described Craigslist addict (he both buys and sells).

He told EcommerceBytes he’s seen a progression of cyber crime explode year after year. So many Craigslist transactions are “bread and butter” items, he said, with a value of $20, $30, or $40. “The vast majority of people on Craigslist are everyday people buying and selling everyday things.”

He himself remains cautious when meeting trading partners, noting for example that he never brings his children. And when selling an expensive item, he spends time on the phone beforehand to get a read on the would-be buyer.

The Safe Deal Zone project appears to be a labor of love. Galbraith, based in Texas, started the site in 2014 and said he doesn’t put any ads on the site, nor does he plan to monetize the site.

Another database can be found on SafeTradeStations, which launched in 2015 “in response to the thousands of transactions initiated on Craigslist and other classified sites that have gone awry.”

It’s operated by the publishing company the AIM Group, which writes about online classifieds. “At this writing, 93 killings have been linked to Craigslist,” it states on its about page. “There’s nothing wrong with Craigslist – it’s a wonderful site and a wonderful service – but safety for users should be paramount. SafeTrade is designed to help everyone stay safe.”

Craigslist is popular with EcommerceBytes readers who use it in some cases to sell hard-to-ship items, and ranks well in the annual Sellers Choice Awards. But many cite safety concerns, such as the seller who wrote this year, “Although it is fairly easy to use, the lack of personal security during delivery or pick up is always an issue.”

Office Boonenberg said the Boca Raton PD does not track usage of their locations by online buyers and sellers, but said after it was first implemented, the Chief talked to community members who had made use of the safe zones.

The Police Department created a video about the safe zones it offers, and posted the video on YouTube in October of 2014.

The video starts with a PSA film from the 1950s or 60s warning children about talking to strangers, and goes on to show a modern-day buyer and seller making use of the police lobby to complete their online transaction in person. It ends with the advice, “Remember, the people you meet on Craigslist are strangers, and could pose dangers.”

Comment on the AuctionBytes Blog.

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Ina Steiner

Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. Send news tips to ina@ecommercebytes.com.


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