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Austin Has No Craigslist 'Safe Zone,' So We Tried the Police Station

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KUT News
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Police departments have opened their doors to sellers in online transactions on sites like Craigslist.

Craigslist and other online forums are all about connections. Some are hilariously missed. But other times those connections go horribly awry, and one party is left with less than they bargained for — or worse.

So to combat scams, robberies and assaults resulting from online transactions, Craigslist suggests that people make “high-value” exchanges at local police stations. And police departments across the country have started opening up their doors to buyers and sellers and creating so-called Craigslist safe zones.

Peter Zollman with the Advanced Interactive Media Group (AIM), a firm he founded that consults classified advertisers in print and online publications, says Craigslist offers a great service, but the anonymity of online transactions poses inherent threats. Late last year, AIM partnered with some police stations to create Safe Trade spots.

“We decided a few months back that it’s not good enough for Craigslist to say, ‘Make your trades in a public place,’” Zollman says, so the company reached out to police stations, asking them to open up their doors for those selling wares online as a deterrent for would-be scammers and criminals.

“If you say to somebody, ‘I’m going to sell you my iPhone, why don’t you meet me at the police station?’ If they were going to rip you off, they’re not going to meet you at a police station,” Zollman says. 

Zollman says Safe Trade has identified more than 100 police stations across the country that offer their facilities for transactions, and the group sponsors several of them. Currently, the Fulshear Police Department outside of Houston is the only department in Texas with a formal policy for Craigslist transactions, allowing sellers and customers to meet in its lobby and even offering serial number-checking services.

Sgt. David Boyd of the Austin Police Department says the department doesn’t have a formal policy on the books. The robbery unit estimates there have been 10 internet-related robberies in Austin since November of last year, with four so far in 2015. Boyd advises common sense for those selling things online — if you're going to meet up with a stranger, do so in a public place, with other people around. 

“You know in your particular neighborhood where there might be a large gathering of people, whether it’s a convenience store, some kind of strip mall area, a public library,” Boyd says. “People can use the parking lots of the police station, if need be. There may not the largest amount of people out there, but if that makes you feel more comfortable, then the parking lots of our [substations] could be available, if needed.”

Meeting at a police station: Does it feel safer?

As it happened, I had Stevie Wonder tickets I wasn't going to be able to use. So I decided to test the theory of police-department-meetup crime deterrence.

I placed an ad on Craigslist for Stevie Wonder’s performance of “Songs in the Key of Life” last week, selling the tickets at face value — $35 for two tickets (with a UT employee discount), tax and processing fees, for a grand total of $92. I posted the ad online a few days before the show on Saturday, and within a few hours I received a response. I told the interested buyer I was a reporter and asked if she’d be willing to meet at a police station.

“Ya sure haha but you do actually have stevie wonder tickets rights? Lol,” she replied in an email.

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Credit Andrew Weber/KUT
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Kaylee Grodin purchased my Stevie Wonder tickets at the police station.

I met Kaylee Grodin, a 19-year-old UT-Austin sophomore studying finance, at the corner of 8th Street and Red River, directly in front of the Austin Police headquarters. She brought a friend along. Grodin said that this was only her second Craigslist transaction.

“I brought a friend, you know, I was smart about it. We’re meeting at a police station,” she said after our exchange. “Last night I was going to buy them originally from somebody else, and this guy was like, ‘I live in Round Rock, you can come get them at my office.’”

Grodin said she was creeped out by the offer.

“So, I asked if he would meet somewhere mutually, and my friend said, ‘You need to meet him at a police station.’ And I just shook it off,” she said. “But when I told her today that I was going to meet you at a police station, she was like ‘I told you!’”

So, for Grodin, the transaction worked out pretty well — she didn’t get scammed, and she got some pretty cheap Stevie Wonder tickets.

Did it feel safer to make the exchange near the police station? Well, Grodin felt more comfortable meeting there than at a stranger's office. Does this work as a deterrent for criminals? The logic works, but it's hard to say — Grodin and I were both normal people who wouldn't have committed a crime anyway. And despite the inherent uncertainty that comes with online anonymity, that's the case for the majority of Craigslist interactions. 

Although it should be said that I was asking $92 for the tickets. Grodin only brought $91, meaning, technically, she kinda scammed me — and in plain sight. Right in front of APD headquarters. I let it slide, but I couldn’t help think of the penultimate song on Wonder’s classic album: “All Day Sucker.”