Online traders get new safe zone from possible harm: police stations

Tue Apr 28, 2015 7:20am EDT
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By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) - After responding to a Craigslist advertisement for a cheap Toyota, Fred Wallace and his wife took $5,000 cash and drove to meet the seller at nightfall at a gated community in California.

Once there, two men attacked and snatched their cash, shot the couple in their late 60s with pepper spray and shoved the wife to the ground.

As alarm rises over violent crimes linked to online classified websites, police departments across the nation are urging buyers and sellers to use department lobbies and parking lots to safely meet strangers and exchange cash for goods.

Police say the 24-hour-surveilled areas, where an armed officer is just a shout away, fend off routine smack-and-grabs and possibly even murders and sexual assaults that can occur when criminals target well-meaning people using online services.

Craigslist is just one of many U.S. online classified websites where most transactions are completed without incident. But with more than 80 million classified ads each month for jobs, cars, televisions and other items, it is one of the most popular, and attracts attention when things go wrong.

According to a tally by the website Law Street, there have been 45 killings connected to Craigslist postings from 2009 through June 2014.

"We were naive," said Wallace, still an avid Craigslist user. "We remember feeling uncomfortable, but we felt the promise of buying exactly what we wanted for a good price."

Law enforcement agencies in a handful of states from New Hampshire to Colorado have pushed "safe zone" campaigns, while Seattle and Chicago have unofficial arrangements where police encourage people to meet in public places, including police station lobbies.   Continued...

A man talks on the phone as he surfs the internet on his laptop at a local coffee shop in downtown Shanghai November 28, 2013.  REUTERS/Carlos Barria