Police offer ‘safe zones’ for online sales transactions
Several police departments have designated safe meeting areas for those wary of meeting up with buyers and sellers of online items.
And they’re full of cops.
Bridgeport, Orange and Hartford police departments are among those providing meeting spots this holiday season for those looking to buy or sell items. Police stations are open around the clock, well-lit and under video surveillance.
Bridgeport Police Chief A.J. Perez said online shopping can be tricky.
“These criminals will offer something that is too good to be true and they will mislead victims to meet in an unfamiliar, dark place. Unknown to the victim, there will be someone else lying wait,” Perez said. “We are offering the front of our headquarters as a safe, convenient alternative.”
There has been a rise in crime against people using Craigslist, OfferUp, Letgo and other sites where individuals can buy and sell items, said Sgt. Joseph Szor, of the Bridgeport police Robbery and Burglary Division.
“Criminals are using these sites to lure would-be buyers or sellers of merchandise into locations where they then rob victims who are legally attempting to transact business,” police said.
Bridgeport police said criminals — whether they’re the buyer or seller — will sometimes assault the victim and leave the scene with the stolen goods or money. In an effort to stop this pattern, police created a safe zone for residents looking to securely and legally purchase or sell items.
Deputy Chief Max Martins of Orange said the holiday season felt like an appropriate time to offer the designated meeting spot.
“The key to this is that people were already using our parking lot, unofficially,” Martins said. “(Now) people who hadn’t had that same idea can use it and can feel safe.”
And the idea has caught on with other police departments. According to OfferUp, over 1,000 similar sites have been set up around the country by law enforcement agencies.
There are about 20 Connecticut municipalities that have formally designated spots.
Hartford police may have been one of the first to appoint an internet safe zone in Feb. 2015.
“We had a homicide,” said Hartford Police spokesman Brian Foley. “A Craigslist homicide, over some computers.”
The victim in that case, 40-year-old Felix DeJesus, of Cromwell, was shot dead in 2013 by a man who responded to his ad. After two men were convicted in the murder, Foley’s boss floated the idea of a safe zone.
“I told the chief he was crazy,” Foley said. “Luckily, I’m wrong a lot of the time.”
Foley said the department realized the internet safe zone would be similar to something the department already had. The meeting spot for internet sales and purchases would mimic that of the children pick up and drop off location provided for parents in divorce or custody proceedings.
Two years after they put up their sign, Hartford police said they see exchanges about twice a day, as internet strangers buy everything from digital gadgets to motorcycles.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to bring in the public,” Foley said, pointing to a 24-hour drug disposal box and other department services.
Internet-transaction robberies continue to happen at non-secure locations. And online markets have only grown as competitors take on Craigslist.
“OfferUp is the largest problem we have right now,” Foley said. “But they’re working with us.”
In an email, OfferUp said that it works with thousands of police departments.
“(O)ur dedicated Trust & Safety team is monitoring for incidents 24 hours a day and proactively engages with PD to provide as much information as we can regarding the users in the reported incident,” said OfferUp spokesman Jerry Howe.
OfferUp donated the “Meetup Spot” internet exchange area sign to the Orange Police Department.
“We know that trust is the most valuable commodity in any marketplace, and what sets OfferUp apart has been our willingness to tackle the issue of trust since day one,” Howe said. “We work with them to set up Community MeetUp Spots that must be well-lit and surveilled, by providing them with a sign, verifying the location, and then surfacing that location in the OfferUp app for our users.”
The Associated Press and New Haven Register contributed reporting from Hartford.