ROCKVILLE—The Rockville Police Station is providing a safe place to conduct transactions that start online on platforms like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.
Websites that facilitate the buying and selling of goods provide a cheap way to thrift shop or get rid of items that are no longer useful. However, there is a certain amount of risk associated with doing deals with strangers over the internet. There isn’t a guarantee that products are as functional as they are described, and not everyone using the online platforms has the best of intentions.
Over the years there have been many instances in which criminals use classified websites to lure potential victims under the guise of ordinary circumstances.
The FBI reported in 2017 that a jewelry heist in California that targeted sellers of high-end items on Craigslist. The criminals arranged for transportation of the sellers, who took the victims to a predetermined location. Once there the thieves assaulted and robbed the sellers of their items.
There have also been reports of even-worse situations devolving from the online platforms, such as murders and rapes. For instance, in 2009, the “Craigslist Killer” Philip Markoff was accused of robbing and killing three women he met in the personals section of Craigslist, according to The Washington Post.
The nature of the internet itself is perhaps partially to blame for the criminal use of platforms like Craigslist. According to an article written by Loretta Stalans of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology and of Psychology at the University of Chicago, the internet allows for malicious behavior because it provides anonymity.
“Maintaining anonymity or bogus identities during the commission of crimes is easier in virtual spaces than in real physical space,” she wrote. By being “faceless,” she explained, the internet facilitates concealing criminal behavior.
In her article titled “Understanding How the Internet Facilitates Crime and Deviance,” Stalans described the internet as multilayered and fragmented, which increases criminality because there is no centralized governing body overseeing it. She also explained that crimes can be more difficult for law enforcement to solve with a savvy web user.
The Rockville police station is trying to reduce criminal incidents like these by using the parking lot and lobby of the station for safe transactions.
Maj. Michael England of the Rockville City Police Department explained that the parking lot is well lit and has video surveillance cameras, and the police station itself is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“If something goes awry during the sale or they don’t have a very good feeling they could basically go in and make contact with an officer, and they can have an officer speak with them,” England said.
Even just suggesting meeting someone online at a police station might be enough to deter some would-be criminals.
“We did have one individual who wanted to meet somebody here at the police station, but the buyer refused to come meet here,” England said. “So that basically was a red flag, and then the individual was told that they would need to buy from someone else.”
Community members who want to use the police station don’t need to make an appointment or call the station before the meeting.
The idea to bring online transactions to the Rockville Police Department is not a new one. England estimated that it had been around for a number of years.
“There was a recent incident that occurred in Rockville where a couple of individuals came to sell an iPhone and basically the buyer got ripped off,” he said. “So, we dusted off this initiative and put it back out there.”
The city of Rockville isn’t the only jurisdiction working toward safe spaces for online transactions. Howard County police have a similar initiative, and in fact, places like Mobile, Alabama; Fairfax, Virginia; and Kaysville, Utah, among others, have set up safe transaction zones as well.
For buyers and sellers who truly want a cut-and-dry transaction, they shouldn’t have any problem making the exchange near a police station.
“So, if the other person in the transaction is reluctant to come to us and meet you here to buy something that they want and they don’t have any nefarious intentions, why not come here?” England asked.