Beware of robbers using Craigslist.
Several of the popular Web site's users have been held up at gunpoint by individuals posing as buyers and sellers, according to a number of police departments.
The robberies, including five in the San Francisco Bay area during the past month, highlight a disturbing trend: The targeting of Craigslist users for violent crime. None of the victims has been hurt, but they have lost cash and hundreds of dollars in property.
The cases show the potential dangers of meeting with strangers to make a transaction, whether the parties first connect through the Internet on Craigslist or eBay, or via a newspaper classified advertisement. They also underscore the need for taking precautions, such as meeting in public, to reduce the risk.
Jim Buckmaster, Craigslist's chief executive, said robberies are extremely rare on his Web site, a digital bulletin board for everything from job openings to personals to selling used sofas. He said there are 10 million new classified ad postings each month, the majority of which involve face-to- face meetings that take place without a problem.
The latest known robbery was Sunday night after two people from the San Francisco Bay area posted an ad on Craigslist to sell hooded jackets. They were contacted by a prospective buyer and agreed to meet in a covered Target department store parking lot in Walnut Creek, Calif., according to Walnut Creek police.
But the transaction soured. At 8:20 p.m., two individuals drove up, one of whom pointed a pistol at the sellers and said, "This is how we're going to do this."
The suspects, who appeared to be 16 to 19 years old, took 11 jackets. Before driving off, they flashed a gang sign and said "this is West Pittsburg," a possible reference to their neighborhood. Police have made no arrests.
A broader outbreak of Craigslist robberies has taken place in San Jose, Calif. During the last week of June, San Jose police said there were four robberies involving people buying or selling items through Craigslist.
In each case, the victims met with a man about a potential transaction on the street near apartment complexes, and ended up being held up at gunpoint for small electronics and cash. In two of the incidents, the victims drove to San Jose to meet the suspect or suspects. The police have yet to announce any arrests.
Whether Craigslist is any more of a target for violent crime now than in the past is difficult to determine. However, representatives from the half-dozen police departments contacted could not recall a Craigslist-related robbery before 2005.
San Francisco police Inspector Pamela Wermes said that she knows of two robberies involving Craigslist in her city since the start of 2005, the most recent of which happened in May. Both cases involved sellers being pushed aside by thieves posing as buyers, who then ran out with the stolen property, in one case an Apple iPod digital music player.
Robberies related to Craigslist aren't only a Bay Area phenomenon. A handful of incidents has been reported across the nation during the past few months.
In April, two men in Boston who responded to an ad for a used 1995 Honda Civic were robbed of their money. The suspect directed the men behind a house to look at the car, and then pulled a gun and forced the victims to the ground before fleeing, according to Boston police.
In May, a man answering an ad on Craigslist in Vancouver, Wash., from a purported prostitute was lured to a park for a meeting and then robbed by three individuals. A man and woman were later arrested, and a teenage female was taken to a juvenile detention facility, the Vancouver police said.
None of the police contacted said that Craigslist has any responsibility for the robberies because of its limited role as an online bulletin board. In fact, they said that Craigslist cooperates with investigations, although it requires law enforcement to get court orders before giving them access to much of its information.
The series of robberies through Craigslist casts the Web site in a different light from its reputation as a tight-knit community, led by Buckmaster, who espouses a philosophy harking back to the hippie era, and the company's convivial founder Craig Newmark. Many users think nothing of inviting strangers to their home or apartment to inspect a used futon or laptop computer for sale.
In fact, Craigslist is no stranger to criminal activity. From time to time, police have arrested individuals for offenses including using the Web site to sell drugs, offering children as prostitutes and fencing stolen merchandise.
Fraud artists routinely lure Craigslist users with come-ons to cash what turn out to be counterfeit cashier's checks for them. Another scam is to ask that buyers pay up front for products that will be shipped later, but never are.
To avoid being robbed, the police and Craigslist advise users to meet in a public place where other people are around.
If something doesn't seem right, reconsider your plans, they said. Also, Craigslist users are advised to keep all correspondence in a transaction to help speed up any police investigation, if one is necessary.
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