Craigslist crime gets police attention

Daniel John Zeitz

Zeitz, 28, was fatally shot in the parking lot of an apartment complex in September as he tried to sell a PS4 gaming system. Nathaniel Vivian and his 16-year-old girlfriend Kayla Dixon allegedly fired the shot.

Critics say Craigslist is a cesspool of crime, an online marketplace where customers can become prey for violent criminals.

The company says such claims are laughable, noting that hundreds of millions of Craigslist transactions occur without a hitch.

Statistics aside, recent crimes linked to Craigslist have taken a toll in metro Atlanta. Over the past two years, five people have died, while others have been scammed, assaulted or robbed.

The crimes have caught the attention of police departments. Some are responding by offering a safe haven for exchanging items sold in online transactions.

“It has become very prevalent. The internet is allowing criminals to shop for victims,” said Cpl. Jake Smith of the Gwinnett County Police Department.

“They are able to determine what the victim will have (money or item) and where they will commit the crime,” Smith said. “Craigslist is the most common site used and is one of the more difficult to track.”

Concerns about Craigslist have gained renewed attention because of the deaths of Bud and June Runion. The Marietta couple was lured to rural Telfair County last month, allegedly by a man they had contacted via Craigslist as Bud Runion searched for a classic Ford Mustang. The two were shot to death in the rural county. And earlier this week, James Jones Jr., 21, was robbed, shot and killed while attempting to buy an iPhone6 from Craigslist, Marietta police said. Less than 24 hours later, investigators had arrested three suspects and charged them with murder.

Two other people in the metro area have died over the last two years in crimes linked to Craigslist.

“When it comes to safety and security, they have a total blind spot that is bad for their users, bad for them and has led to incredibly sad outcomes, like the Runions,” said Peter M. Zollman, founding principal of AIM Group, an interactive and classified advertising consulting firm.

Zollman said he has documented at least 50 homicides nationwide related to Craigslist transactions.

“I use Craigslist. I love Craigslist. I think (founder) Craig (Newmark) and (CEO) Jim Buckmaster provide a great service,” Zollman said in a phone interview Friday. “They can’t solve the problem, and they should not be blamed for the actions of people who rob and kill and rape other people using Craigslist as a connecting tissue.”

But he said Craigslist has been remiss in protecting its customers. Zollman criticized what he called Craigslist’s “very half-hearted, moderately well-hidden security information.”

A representative of Craigslist did not respond to a request for comment Friday. But in a 2011 blog post, Buckmaster noted Zollman’s research has been funded by a competitor of Craigslist. And he said any crimes linked to his company are dwarfed by the hundreds of millions of uneventful posts and transactions.

“Crime is rare on Craigslist in part because criminals know that the electronic trail they leave there helps ensure their capture, and CL is unusually helpful and cooperative with law enforcement,” he wrote.

“The risk is not zero, of course, and common sense precautions are in order when using Craigslist, just as you would do at other venues or offline (where risks are arguably higher),” Buckmaster wrote.

Police departments around the country have seen Craigslist robberies of all kinds, but say they often center on mobile devices or gaming systems.

Officer Jesse Roybal, spokesman for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said his department usually sees a spike in such robberies with the release of new products such as iPhones or PlayStations.

“When the PlayStation 4 was released, people were advertising that they had them, and they didn’t and they robbed the people who came to buy them,” Roybal said. “We saw that a lot.”

Roybal said they also notice a spike in Craigslist robberies around Christmastime. Even so, he couldn’t remember a recent case that resulted in murder.

Sgt. Pete Simpson, spokesman for the Portland, Oregon, Police Department said that the most common Craigslist robbery in his city is of iPhones. Even though they usually involve a weapon, none has ended in murder, Simpson said.

Zollman said that nearly 50 police departments around the nation have begun inviting people to transact Craigslist business at police stations.

Metro Atlanta police departments have begun allowing online sales transactions to happen on their premises.

Though Craigslist crimes have gained attention, Zollman acknowledged that crime via classified ads isn’t new.

“It used to happen with newspaper classifieds 30 year ago,” he said. “That said, Craigslist is absolutely not doing enough to encourage, to promote and to provide avenues to safe transactions. Simple as that.”

Staff writer Christian Boone contributed to this report.