A Craigslist transaction underway at a "safe trade zone" in front of a Georgetown, Massachusetts police station. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Doing business within sight of police cameras: a security “no-brainer.”

In March, my bike was stolen from in front of my apartment. So I did what one does in that situation: cry, then take to Craigslist. I didn’t find my bike among the listings, but I found a pretty decent replacement—a red, steel-frame 5-speed straight out of the 1980s. It was only $99, and all I had to do was hop on the ferry to Staten Island to go pick it up.

Almost everyone I informed of my plan had the same reaction: you are going to get murdered.

I didn’t, and the bike turned out to be perfect. But one feel-good story is not enough to dispel the paranoia that can often be attached to Craigslist exchanges. “There is something about Craigslist that creates an ethos of anonymity, that creates an ethos of misbehavior,” says Peter M. Zollman, the founding principal of Advanced Interactive Media Group, which does consulting for classified advertising companies around the world. Zollman says this is not necessarily the fault of the platform itself, but due to the fact that people are inherently unpredictable.

In 2015, AIM Group launched SafeTrade to engender a sense of security into online exchanges. The way the program works is very simple: any police station can elect to designate a section of its property—often a couple of parking spaces or the lobby—as a “safe trade zone” (they’re also sometimes called “internet exchange zones” or “safe exchange zones”). It costs stations next to nothing to do so—just the price of a couple signs—and, so far, around 300 stations across the U.S. and Canada have opted in. While AIM Group initiated the program, “it’s really taken on a life of its own,” Zollman says. Conducting such potentially risky exchanges within sight of police-monitored cameras is a no-brainer solution, he says.

The idea to use police station property as safe zones dates back to 2012, when a spate of Craigslist-related robberies raised hackles in Milwaukee. In the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, a local police officer, Lisa Staffold, termed the events “robbery by appointment.” People were showing up to their chosen meeting spots, goods—often iPhones—in hand, only to be held at gunpoint and ripped off. Staffold said that to curtail these crimes, sellers should use police stations as meeting points.

The Journal Sentinel reported her reason:

If they don't want to meet you at a safe place, if they don't want to meet you at a police district, that should be a red flag, an indicator: Don't do business with that individual.

Zollman’s company took notice, but it wasn’t until last year that a reporter asked Zollman if he knew how many murders had been linked to Craigslist. He tallied them up and found 84. “I was appalled,” Zollman says. The AIM Group began tracking Craigslist-related murders on a blog; they now number 103. “But one killing is too many,” Zollman says.

It’s difficult to determine whether the reduction in murders from 22 in 2014 to just three this year is linked to SafeTrade or a general increased awareness of Craigslist safety precautions, but the appeal of this additional security measure is pretty undeniable. The Washington Post reported that SafeTrade locations have begun cropping up at stations in the D.C. area. While officers do not involve themselves in exchanges, they’re aware that their proximity (and the presence of security cameras) goes a long way toward reassuring participants.

Speaking to The Washington Post, the Fairfax City Chief Carl Pardiny said:

I’ll gladly give up two of my parking spaces to create an atmosphere that we’re at a location that’s safe. Policing is not about law enforcement completely. It’s about providing quality-of-life-based services to our residents and business owners.

Even if the nearby police station has not posted a sign declaring a safe trade zone, Zollman says people should still propose meeting within sight of law enforcement. That goes even for purchasing things that are not easily transported, like a couch. Before venturing to someone’s home to pick up an item, suggest meeting at a station to exchange information and drivers’ licenses, Zollman says. “If someone declines to meet you at a station, that tells you all you need to know about them,” he adds.

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