All sales final: Cities provide e-commerce zones to thwart crime
John Bacon, USA TODAY4:02 p.m. EDT April 21, 2016
The last straw in Boca Raton, Fla., was when someone sold a MacBook Pro on Craigslist and met the prospective buyer inside a Barnes & Noble, only to have the suspect snatch the computer and run out of the store.
"They did everything we ask people to do when exchanging goods after an online sale," police spokesman Mark Economou said. "Public place, well lit, a safe place. And still a crime was committed."
Police made an arrest in the case. They also announced the opening of the police station lobby and parking lot for property sales and exchanges. No questions asked. Chief Daniel Alexander figured that someone planning a crime is a lot less likely to commit one at police headquarters.
"We invite you to do your deal (legal, that is) at our place," Chief Daniel Alexander said in a blog that wrapped with a recurring, iconic line from the 1980s cop show Hill Street Blues. "Let’s be careful out there."
Boca Raton learned its lesson 18 months ago. On Thursday, Washington, D.C., joined the growing list of cites providing e-commerce safe zones designed to curb the crime that can occur when closing an online deal. The city unveiled three "Exchange Zone" areas, well-lit and near police stations, "giving Washingtonians a safe place to purchase or exchange property," Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier said.
The crimes the zones target can be more serious than theft. Advanced Interactive Media Group (AIM), an industry watchdog, says more than 100 murders have taken place through Craigslist connections.
The most notorious case involved Boston University medical student Philip Markoff, dubbed "the Craigslist killer," who was accused of murdering a woman who offered massage services on the site. Markoff, also accused of robbing two other women, committed suicide in his cell in 2010 while awaiting trial.
Scores of police departments now provide some type of safe zone. AIM operates a website, safetradestations.com, that provides safe locations for e-commerce exchanges across the nation.
Craigslist says its transactions are safe, that the number of thefts and violent crime are minuscule compared to the number of transactions made every day. But it does have a safety page suggesting, among other things, that buyers and sellers "insist on a public meeting place like a cafe, bank, or shopping center. Do not meet in a secluded place, or invite strangers into your home."
In North Miami, Fla., where a man was fatally shot in 2009 while selling a Rolex in an online deal gone bad, police have designated two parking spots for transactions. InHartford, Conn., "Operation Safe Lot" welcomes dealmakers to a parking lot in front police headquarters. Hartford has its own Craigslist murder case; police say a man was killed in 2013 while selling computer tablets.
"That case was a main driving point in putting this together," Assistant Chief Brian Foley said. "I can tell you that our Craigslist robberies have virtually dropped off the face of the earth."
Delta Township, Mich., posted "E-Commerce Exchange Zone" signs in the parking lot of the sheriff's office this week. Supervisor Ken Fletcher says they haven't had much of a problem with transaction crimes, but "for a couple hundred bucks of signage it's worth it."
In Overland Park, Kan., police spokesman Richard Breshears said the headquarters lobby and parking lot are open 24/7 for people wanting to conduct transactions. The only problem he can foresee is that, if the program grows too popular, it could disrupt day-to-day business. But so far the advantages outweigh any concerns, he said.
"We want people who are suspicious about a deal to use the space," he said. "Criminals don't usually want to come to the police department for any reason. And if something were to happen, we don't have to send officers out. We can respond right there."