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Spate of crimes linked to Craigslist prompts extra caution

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By CRAIG SCHNEIDER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA (AP) - With gray skies and a curtain of drizzly rain, the transaction at the McDonald's had an aura of film noir.

As Bill Lucas conferred with the buyer in one booth, his wife - a black belt in American Karate - watched discretely from another, strategically located between them and the door. Lucas had chosen the restaurant specifically for its surveillance cameras. And, as always, he didn't hand over the refurbished iPhone 5 until the buyer produced the $215.

Given the recent spate of crimes linked to Craigslist, more and more people are adopting precautions long urged by the site's owners and law enforcement officials. For Lucas, a computer executive who's been selling and buying on Craigslist part-time for 15 years, such precautions are second nature.

"I'm careful," said Lucas, 53, "and procedural."

Craigslist, in some ways, is the new Casablanca, an alluring but somewhat dodgy realm where you can meet a stranger, come to terms and, in a matter of minutes, buy or sell almost anything your heart desires. Despite some risk, there is the promise of a great deal.

Many people, however, are rethinking how they use the online service, made nervous by a series of deaths police have linked to Craigslist transactions. Buyers and sellers are asking more questions over the phone before meeting. They're taking fewer chances and observing stricter rules about when and where they'll meet.

A search this week on Craigslist Atlanta for the term "police station" turned up almost 300 ads. A spot check revealed that most specified that the person placing the ad wanted to conduct any transaction at a local police station.

In recent months, an increasing number of metro Atlanta police departments have offered "safe zones" for such transactions. They include Smyrna, Woodstock, Kennesaw, Roswell and the county departments of Cobb and Gwinnett.

"I pick the place. I don't let them pick the place," said Glenn Reynolds, 50, of Cartersville. "And I would have a gun in the car, and a pocket knife on me."

He prefers buying on Craigslist over, say, eBay, because he can actually see and handle the product.

"As long as you're willing to take the risks involved in Craigslist, it's better, because you can go and see it. If it's a piece of electronics, you can turn it on to make sure it works," he said. "Plus you can haggle a little."

If something doesn't smell right, some people say they automatically bail.

"My mom, she wanted some tires off Craigslist. She went to meet the guy," said Kameyah Ransom, 18, of Atlanta, recalling the nighttime incident in the Panola Road area last year. "She saw him. He was in a small car and she didn't see any tires. She just turned around."

Others have simply sworn off the site, fearful that they will be swindled, beaten or worse.

"I've sold on Craigslist. Some furniture. I let a guy come to my house," said Lauren Sheldon, 56, of Dunwoody. "I'll never do that again. Really, I wouldn't even go on Craigslist. Never. I would never even think about it."

Lately, one crime has followed on the heels of another. In January, Bud and June Runion of Marietta were killed after driving to a remote spot in Telfair County in search of a classic Mustang. Two weeks later, a Clark Atlanta University student, James Earl Jones Jr., was robbed and killed while attempting to buy an iPhone 6 from someone who advertised it on the site.

Craigslist crime is a national occurrence. Peter Zollman, whose classified ad consulting firm tracks the phenomenon, said he found news reports for over 20 killings related to the site in 2014.

Craigslist officials did not respond to interview requests. In the past they have said the number of crimes linked to the online marketplace is negligible, compared the hundreds of millions of transactions that go off without a hitch.

Similarly, many people who regularly use the Atlanta section of the site say the great majority of deals occur without incident.

"My research shows that the public tends to exaggerate the frequency of relatively rare but serious crimes like homicide, because these crimes are selected out and disproportionately reported by the news media because of their newsworthiness," said Mark Warr, a criminologist and sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Still, random interviews by the AJC with about 15 people found that the majority have increasing concern about the safety of doing business via Craigslist. And some have crafted elaborate game plans for their Craigslist transactions.

When Marvelle Fluker sold her couch last month on Craigslist, she made sure to meet the buyer at a nearby gas station, and she brought her two sons along. The buyer seemed to be alone, but Fluker asked her to open the back of her rental truck, "to make sure nobody else was there."

When they drove out of the gas station to head back to Fluker's Atlanta home, Fluker went first, followed by the woman, followed by Fluker's sons in a third car, "just to make sure we weren't followed," she recalled. "And I wouldn't let her into my house."

Other people say they've always taken what, to them, seem common-sense precautions.

Marino Callum, 23, buys cars off Craigslist, which he refurbishes and resells. He says he sells about a dozen a year, specializing in Honda Civics.

"You get to interact with people instead of dealerships, with all their lies and foolishness," he said.

Often, he's bringing several thousand dollars in cash to the transactions.

"I don't go to deals unarmed," he said. "I take a gun, a Glock."

Still others say they've learned the hard way to steer clear of certain transactions.

Rob Cuddeback said he's learned his lesson about the dangers of Craigslist. Last year, he bought a 59-inch TV that the seller delivered to his home and helped set up. He turned it on, it worked for several minutes and he handed over $200.

Minutes after the guy left, the set died, said Cuddeback, 35, a Dunwoody real estate investor.

"It's inherently stupid to contact a stranger online, notify them that you have money, and then invite that stranger into the house," he said. "If I was a criminal, I would say this is the greatest thing in the world."

So is he through with Craigslist?

"I would sell, not buy," he said.

Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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