Detroit area cops offer Craigslist safe sites

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

Metro area law enforcement officials are offering police stations as safe havens where online buyers and sellers can meet in response to scams and thefts involving Craigslist and other websites.

Sterling Heights announced April 24 that Craigslist and other online buyers can use the Police Department’s lobby and parking lot for transactions. Southfield and Ferndale said they will soon offer that option. And Troy police recently announced their station is an online transaction safe zone.

Detroit police don’t formally offer their stations for transactions, but say they encourage buyers and sellers to be safe when making those deals.

“We want to stand by without standing by,” said Sgt. Baron Brown of the Ferndale Police Department. “Through the years, we have always encouraged people to meet here when it comes to Craigslist.”

Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said police offering space is relatively new, and several police chiefs support the idea.

“This a lot better than meeting someone in a parking lot in the middle of the night,” Stevenson said. “Many police stations are even putting in ATMs for safety reasons.”

Stevenson said meeting at a police station should scare off most criminals.

“An officer won’t be there during the transaction, but if the person is willing to meet at the station, you know you can have a good feeling about the exchange,” he said.

Sterling Heights officials said police will not participate in transactions nor act as official witnesses. They also won’t provide legal advice or settle disputes.

The haven options locally come in the wake of some high-profile cases across the U.S. involving Craigslist crimes. A Georgia couple were killed trying to buy a classic car and a Colorado woman had her baby cut from her womb when she was trying to buy baby clothes. There also are numerous cases that don’t make headlines in which buyers or sellers are robbed, don’t receive payment or are scammed out of the product that’s being sold or bought.

The moves to protect buyers dovetails with an increase in online purchases. The federal Department of Commerce said U.S. retail e-commerce sales for the fourth quarter of 2014 increased 2.3 percent. E-commerce sales last year were up 15.4 percent over the year before.

Christopher Wilcher of Detroit did everything right when trying to buy electronics off Craigslist four years ago. He met at a public location and took someone with him, but it wasn’t enough.

“My brother was killed over a material item. He met the person at a Coney Island. He thought that was a safe enough place,” said Corrine Lyons, who is Wilcher’s sister. “People would be less tempted to commit crimes if they were going to meet someone at the police station. Maybe my brother would still be here.”

Andrea Bitley, communications director for Attorney General Bill Schuette, said that office is aware of Craigslist crimes, but hasn’t prosecuted any cases.

“We do highly encourage people to conduct business in a safe way, in areas such as the police station; and to always let someone know where you are going or leave the address location” of the transaction, she said.

Steven Wimberley has been lucky in the five years he’s used Craigslist. He has bought cellphones, shoes and furniture, and never been scammed.

“I always felt the need to be safe. I haven’t met at a police station, but I have met at church parking lot,” said Wimberley, who lives in Detroit. “You would have to be a terrible person to try and scam someone in the parking lot of a church, but I know it happens.”

Lt. Nick Loussia of the Southfield Police Department said while they are deciding if an officer will oversee any transactions, people meeting at the department still need to take precautions.

“We have cases where money was given to the subject, but the person didn’t get the product or someone ran off with it during a transaction,” Loussia said. “You should never meet anyone alone. Always pick a public place with surveillance cameras and if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Margaret Thomas, dispatcher for the Southfield department, said they have received reports from residents being duped by con artists using phony paperwork to sell automobiles.

“People are selling stolen cars on Craigslist and creating fake titles to go along with them,” Thomas said. “People don’t know the cars are stolen until they take them to the Secretary of State office and it’s noted in the system.”

Southfield resident Ralph Clarke, who was trying to sell a 1998 Dodge Stratus, was almost swindled out of $850.

“I spoke to the person several times through email and on the phone,” Clarke said. “The guy sent me a fake cashier’s check. When I tried to get in touch with him, he disappeared. If I met him in person, I would have been out of luck. The check looked very real.”

Ferndale’s Brown said people should never give a payment up-front. “In recent years, we have had more reports of people being scammed by wiring money first before receiving the product,” Brown said. “The criminals are usually out of town and we don’t have the funds to send a detective out of state or even out of the country. In most cases the victim will not get their money back.”

While Wimberley said he is a cautious buyer, he noted some sellers are careless. “A few times, I have gone to someone’s home and the person opened the door wide open and they appeared to be alone,” Wimberley said. “Some people are too trusting and unfortunately they end up paying for it.”

Lyons says that while her brother may have been murdered during a botched transaction, she does not blame the website. “There is nothing wrong with Craigslist and everyone that uses it is not bad, but people should be aware and always find ways to be safe when using the site,” Lyons said.

(313) 222-1855

Tips from cops

Some guidelines when you’re buying items from Craigslist:

■“Use basic common sense and act like you know what you are doing when meeting someone,” Sgt. Baron Brown of the Ferndale Police Department said.

■“Meet in a well-lit location with surveillance cameras and always be alert,” Lt. Nick Loussia of the Southfield Police Department said.

Lt. Dave Smith of the Sterling Heights Police Department offers these tips:

■Conduct transactions with local buyers/sellers.

■Do not go to a transaction alone.

■Make sure someone is aware of the transaction details.

■Insist on meeting in a public place or “safe zone.”

■Do not go into someone else’s house, and do not allow them into yours.

■Complete the transaction during daylight hours.

■ use only cash or money orders to complete your transaction.

■Trust your instincts; if it sounds like a scam it probably is.