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Every Md. police department should designate 'safe zones' for Craigslist deals

It used to be that the biggest danger Craigslist posed was to the newspaper industry in the form of lost classified ads. But today, some users of the site are posing a physical threat to the public, setting up phony sales transactions, job interviews and appointments as a means to rob or attack responders.

There have been at least 105 homicides associated with such meetings since 2007, according to a website that tracks "Craigslist killings" through media accounts, the most recent occurring last month in Georgia, when a man was shot to death after responding to an ad for an iPhone. In one horrific case in Colorado, a woman's 7-month old fetus was fatally cut from her uterus in 2015 after she responded to a posting for baby clothes. (The attacker was sentenced to 100 years in prison in April.) And in 2009, a Boston University medical student was accused of arranging meetings with several women via Craigslist, then robbing them at gunpoint (once catching a flight to Baltimore immediately afterward to visit his grandparents for Passover) and later killing one; police said the student, Philip Markoff, who committed suicide while awaiting trial, was on his way to becoming a serial killer when he was caught.

Numerous other injuries and attacks linked to Craigslist also have been recorded throughout the country, including in Maryland. In August, a Sykesville man was shot in the forehead when he met with a supposed buyer for his dirt bike in Baltimore. In Havre de Grace last year, a Delaware man said he was robbed while trying to buy a car. And in Bolton Hill in 2012, both buyer and seller brought guns to a vehicle sale, with the supposed seller trying to rob the buyer, whose girlfriend fired a shot into the air, leading the gunman to drop his weapon and run.

While the vast majority of Craigslist deals are legitimate, the site, which now has more than 60 million users each month in the U.S. alone, recommends meeting in a public place "like a cafe, bank or shopping center." But even that didn't protect an Edgewood teen this year; the young man arranged to sell a video game at a popular gas station in January only to have the so-called buyer rob him at gunpoint, after first trying to pay with a fake $50 bill.

We were pleased, then, to see that the Howard County Police Department recently joined roughly 300 other law enforcement agencies nationwide — including the Annapolis Police Department — in offering safe zones for such classified sales transactions. We would encourage the rest of the state's police departments to do the same. There's very little cost or effort involved, and it could save a life. And in jurisdictions like Baltimore, where relations are strained between the community and officers, such zones could engender some much-needed good will.

Howard followed the model many police departments use, designating certain parking spots at both the northern and southern districts as "transaction safe places" for buyers and sellers to meet. Police officers don't oversee the sales, but the site is monitored by surveillance video and clearly marked as a safe zone. In all, the department spent about a hundred bucks for signage.

"We're always looking for ways to make the community's life safer, [and] I thought this was a great idea," Lt. Jennifer Reidy-Hall told the Howard County Times this month. "You always hear about transactions going badly and see the Facebook posts about homicide or robberies that had happened during Craigslist transactions."

Annapolis launched its safe zone program at police headquarters last year, with officers sometimes checking the goods pre-sale to make sure they're not stolen. And others have been cropping up across the country, from California to Maine, according to the website safedeal.zone, which offers a searchable safe zone map and free "safe deal zone" logos for download.

Of course, there's nothing stopping you from arranging to meet a buyer or seller at your local police station on your own, even if it doesn't have a designated transaction spot. If the person you're dealing with balks at the idea, it's a safe bet that's a person you don't want to meet.

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