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Police lobbies can be safe space for Craigslist swaps

  • Article by: DINESH RAMDE
  • Associated Press
  • March 29, 2014 - 4:54 PM

RACINE, Wis. — When Branden Kerr recently arranged to sell a video game console on Craigslist, he suggested to the buyer that they conduct the swap at a Milwaukee police station. The buyer, who'd previously agreed to the deal, replied by text that he was no longer interested.

"You can infer what you want from that," said Kerr, 29, of Racine. "It seems pretty shady when someone is willing to pay money, and when police get involved, they back out."

Law enforcement agencies say it's not often that residents use a police lobby to seal a deal made online, but they like the idea. They say it's a neutral location that allows both parties to keep their home addresses private, and having officers nearby makes it far less likely that one party will swindle the other.

Kerr came up with the idea because of his experience as a military police officer. He said he's been trained to be cautious and not take unnecessary risks.

So when he decided to sell his Sony PlayStation 4 along with video games and an extra controller, he was careful not to reveal too much personal information. He used a smartphone app that allowed him to text without revealing his actual phone number, and he never gave out his home address.

After the first buyer backed out on March 8, Kerr sold the equipment to a Milwaukee buyer the next day for $690. That man didn't mind meeting at a police station.

Jackson Police Chief Jed Dolnick, the president of the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, said it's a "nice option" for online buyers and sellers to meet in a police lobby. He said he's only aware of it happening a few times across the state, but it's an idea that makes sense, especially because there have been reports of criminals using Craigslist to find victims.

For example, Dane County authorities say a man who visited a Sun Prairie home in October in response to a Craigslist ad for car parts came back a few days later to burglarize the home.

Dolnick cautioned that some police departments may not have lobbies large enough to accommodate buyers and sellers. Others may not be open 24 hours a day.

"I'd suggest checking with your local police department first," he said, adding, "We might be reaching a point where more police departments consider offering this as a public service if they're able to."

Milwaukee police Officer Dan Stachoviak was on duty when Kerr asked permission to sell his PlayStation in the lobby. Stachoviak had no objections.

"We kind of encourage people to do it at a police station," he said. "If it's a person of legitimate business dealings, they won't have a problem with it. In my opinion, it's a good way to eliminate those who are up to no good, whether buying or selling."

If Stachoviak had turned Kerr down, Kerr said he would have suggested meeting at a bank or retail store, somewhere likely to have surveillance cameras. And he said he would have done so even if he were selling something inexpensive, because a thief could still target a seller's vehicle, smartphone or wallet.

"To an outsider it might sound like I'm taking a lot of precautions, but I do it to keep my family safe," he said. "It just makes sense to me."

© 2014 Star Tribune