Police warn residents of Craigslist robberies

Michael Futrell was trying to teach his children a lesson in tidiness when he sold their iPad on Jan. 21. Little did Futrell know that he would be the one to learn a lesson that day.

He posted the tablet on Craigslist.org after his two children failed to keep their rooms clean. Futrell arranged a meeting and sold the device, but later found out he’d been paid in counterfeit money.

The North Augusta resident joined a growing list of victims who have fallen prey to criminals who use classified-ad sites to rob or deceive unsuspecting area residents.

According to a statement from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office last month, Futrell’s was one of at least three crimes tied to Craiglist so far this year. The other two incidents were armed robberies – one case ending in shots fired but no injuries. All incidents occurred in the 2100 block of B Street.

“It’s certainly a dangerous situation,” Lt. Lewis Blanchard said about the crimes. “In these situations, the chance of loss of life exists.”

After negotiating the price with the buyer – a woman – over the phone, Futrell called the number the next day to arrange a meeting. A man answered.

The man was interested in buying the iPad, Futrell said, but they could not agree on a price. After Futrell hung up, the woman he had spoken with called back from the same number, apologized on behalf of her husband and agreed to meet Futrell at the Wal-Mart in North Augusta to complete the transaction.

Before Futrell could leave the house, the woman called back, complaining of car trouble. Futrell then agreed to meet the couple on B Street near Lake Olmstead.

“That was a little naive of me because I didn’t know what kind of area that was,” Futrell said.

The exchange was quick. The man emerged from behind the house, handed over $270 and disappeared with the iPad in hand.

“As we were driving down Broad Street, my wife was counting the money and said, ‘This doesn’t feel right. It feels fake,’” he said.

Futrell later learned that more than $200 of the money was counterfeit.

Crimes involving ad sites such as Craigslist and Backpage.com are becoming more common, Blanchard said, because criminals are likely to walk away with more cash than they might otherwise.

“If they know you’re coming with $300 cash, you’re an easy target,” Blanchard said. “They don’t even know if they could get that by robbing a gas station.”

Robert Brame, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, said using the Web sites helps create an ideal situation for a robbery to take place.

That situation can be broken into three parts, he said.

“You need a victim that’s not adequately guarded, you need a motivated offender and you need an attractive target or something of value that the robber wants,” Brame said. “People who commit robberies often are looking for ways to create situations that are unguarded or low-risk for them to caught.”

Craiglist is perfect for lowering the guard of the victim because more time is devoted toward building their trust, said Maj. Florence McCants, of the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy.

“The longer they can keep you on the phone, the more they can get out of you,” McCants said. “They’re buying into your mental bank account and they’ll make an investment if they can.”

Crime reporting systems, however, prevent law enforcement from tracking robberies involving the sites, Brame said. Law enforcement agencies generally place armed robberies into two categories: commercial and personal. Craigslist robberies, which fall into the personal robbery category, are counted just like any other type of armed robbery, Brame said.

“You would treat it as though it was any other investigation you would have,” McCants said. “It’s no different than someone walking up to you as a stranger on the street. The only thing different is that people are using Craigslist as a tool to commit that crime. It’s a challenge.”

Asked by e-mail Monday how the company helps to prevent such crimes from happening, Craigslist spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best deferred to the company’s safety tips listed on the site.

In the meantime, Futrell said, he’s rethinking his use of Craiglist.

“I’m a relatively cynical guy,” he said. “If anything, I think this experience will just harden my cynical bones when it comes to dealing with people on Craigslist.”

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SAFETY TIPS

The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office urges residents to follow these tips when using classified-advertising sites such as Craigslist.org to purchase or sell items:

• Check out the seller’s information. Ask for a phone number and address before arranging a meeting place.

• Ask as many questions as you can before going to buy the product. If the sellers can’t answer your questions, there is a good chance they don’t have the item they are selling.

• Don’t buy from sellers who list only an e-mail address.

• Meet in a public, well-lit place like a coffee shop or cafe to ensure your safety.

• Never go to a second location that has not been agreed on.

• Don’t travel by yourself.

• Show up to the meeting place early and scope out the area. If something seems out of place, trust your instincts and leave.

• If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Source: Richmond County Sheriff’s Office

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