Ad browsers beware, online or off

  • Article by: CURT BROWN and EMILY JOHNS , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: October 30, 2007 - 4:13 PM

A killing that may be linked to the popular Craigslist website has created unease among its Minnesota users, but experts say caution and common sense should guide your response to classified ads.

A Wayzata nanny agency sent memos Monday to 12,000 young women in its national database, urging caution online. A University of Minnesota student considered a different, perhaps safer, way to sell her $850 flute.

As the popularity of Craigslist.org and other online classified ad sites has soared in Minnesota, the killing of Katherine Ann Olson is creating new unease among the thousands of people who use such websites to find jobs, love or a buyer for their old junk.

"This generation is growing up with Facebook, MySpace and Craigs- list to the point where they have become commonplace," said Joe Keeley, president of College Nannies & Tutors. "Whether you're selling a couch or looking for a job, you need to be cautious."

But when there is a financial interest, such as finally selling an old car or landing a job, "caution is sometimes not at the forefront of one's mind," said Craigslist spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best.

But experts say that fingers should not be pointed at the Internet.

Consumers should always be savvy about meeting with strangers -- even if you have talked to them or e-mailed them -- and let common sense be your guide.

Family members said that Olson, 24, disappeared after responding to a nanny job in Savage that she found on Craigslist. The St. Olaf College grad was found dead in the trunk of her car in a Burnsville park on Friday.

Scott County prosecutors are expected to file criminal charges against the 19-year-old suspect this morning.

The Olson killing is why Johanna Epley is reconsidering how to sell her flute. She uses Craigslist once in while, but the classified site's local focus made her feel safer. A week ago, she posted the $850 flute online and got two responses that she believed were shady.

"After seeing the scams, and hearing about [the killing], I've been kind of developing a discomfort with online interaction," she said. "I think I might not try to sell my flute online anymore."

Olson's killing, if proven to be tied to Craigslist, would be the first linked to the San Francisco-based company's site, said MacTavish Best. In Los Angeles, police are investigating the disappearance of a 19-year-old woman who might have met her abductor on Craigslist.

For the most part, though, such sites are considered safe and useful, considering the volume of traffic: In its 12-year history, Craigslist users have posted 450 million ads.

And Internet alternatives such as personal ads in the newspaper, bulletin boards or buying over the phone pose the same kind of risks.

"It's not the Internet," said Nora Paul, who runs the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota. "It's just using common sense when you go into a situation when you don't know what the whole story might be."

Keeley said that Internet users fear getting scammed more than physically harmed, but Olson's killing might prompt a "slight awakening."

Thinking twice

Responding to a Craigslist ad for a part-time job, Cassandra Crawford agreed to help a photographer clean up his house in Farmington and sell equipment he no longer used. She assumed he lived or worked in town, not in the middle of nowhere.

"As I was driving down the dirt road, I did consider the thought that he could harm me and no one would find me for a very long time," said Crawford, who doesn't scare easily and continued toward the house. "He turned out to be a very nice guy with a very friendly German shepherd. But he could have turned out to be a nutso."

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