Metro-East News

Area police departments create safe-exchange zones for online buyers, sellers

As investigators in Missouri try to piece together details of a metro-east resident’s murder, possibly in connection with an attempt to sell his car online, local police have taken steps to make Internet-based trading more safe.

Fairview Heights, O’Fallon and Columbia police have set up safe-exchange zones at their headquarters to give people a place to complete transactions with less risk than meeting in public or at an unfamiliar person’s residence.

“Remember, the people you meet online are strangers,” Fairview Heights Police Lt. Mike Hoguet said. “Not every buyer or seller you meet online is someone who is true with their intent. There is a certain criminal element that capitalizes on the inexperience of others.”

SIUE student Taylor Clark was attempting to sell his 2007 Nissan online. Before he went missing Monday, he told family members he had received at least one call regarding the car. He was murdered and his body was found Tuesday at a truck-driving school in Hazelwood, Mo.

Major Case Squad Deputy Commander Tim Fagan said detectives are investigating the Craigslist angle, but police were looking at any possible motives.

He said the Clark case, however, should serve as a warning to people that they need to be especially vigilant when trying to sell things to strangers.

“People should always be concerned (about their safety when conducting financial transactions),” Fagen said. “Especially about anything they do online.”

Hoguet said the Fairview Heights safe-trade zone is covered extensively by surveillance cameras that would make individuals with bad intentions less likely to commit crimes, since they’d be more easily identified and caught. The cameras were paid for with money seized from drug dealers, according to police.

Some cameras cover the entrance to capture the identity of people coming and going. Additional cameras are placed in the areas of the parking lot and the police department lobby, where trades are to take place.

Area departments opening their premises as safe-exchange zones are following what’s become a national trend.

In O’Fallon, the police department has started a program that provides safe haven for in-person transactions involving online purchases. O’Fallon Police Lt. James Cavins said the program is modeled after another from the police department in Naperville that provides any online buyers or sellers a safe environment to complete the sale. He said the program comes as a result of an unfortunate and ironic set of circumstance.

“It just provides buyers and sellers with an option to complete their transaction in a safe location,” Cavins said. “The O’Fallon Police Department will not get involved in any way. We will not in any way get involved in the civil personal transactions between the two parties. It is just a location, and no firearms will be allowed to be sent, purchased or sold on our property.”

Columbia Police became at least the third area department offering their property as a safe-exchange zone. According to a statement posted to the department’s Facebook page Wednesday, the department encourages “residents to use our parking lot as well as our front lobby when meeting individuals to purchase or sell items via Craigslist or local swap and sell sites.”

Hoguet said Fairview Heights has investigated two online-related robberies within the past year.

Both were cases where people who advertised items for sale agreed to meet potential customers, who grabbed the item and ran off without paying.

Because of its location in the middle of the metro-east and near Interstate 64, Hoguet said people from all over the metro-east make arrangements to make transactions in Fairview Heights.

“Everybody knows where the mall is, so they say they’ll meet someone on one of the parking lots,” Hoguet said. “This will give them a safer alternative.”

Fairview Heights Police urge online shoppers and sellers to arrange for their transactions to take place at the police department at 10027 Bunkum Road. Trades can take place in the parking lot or in the lobby.

Several recent crimes connected to online sales have made the news recently:

On Tuesday, Peyton McAnelly of O’Fallon, Mo., was sentenced to life in prison for murdering a man who responded to his Craigslist ad in St. Louis in 2012. McAnelly pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, armed criminal action and attempted robbery.

In March, Atlanta-area police broke up a ring of four men and three women who preyed on people trying to sell cars over the internet.

Two teens from Tacoma, Wash., were kidnapped in February when they attempted to respond to an online ad for a used car.

Internet buying and selling safety tips:

▪  Use only familiar websites

▪  Never provide personal information over the internet

▪  Never purchase anything online via a credit or debit card if the site does not have an SSL or secure socket layer

▪  Cut and paste photos from a Word document so criminals can’t use GPS information to locate you

▪  Show up early

▪  Never go alone