Craigslist.org auto listings offer warnings against scams and fraud.
The married couple from Fremont thought they were buying a silver 2003 Mercedes-Benz through Craigslist.
After meeting the seller at the Lake Merritt BART Station this week in Oakland, they climbed in the back seat of the luxury car and were driven to their bank, where they withdrew $8,500 to complete the deal.
Minutes later, the seller picked up a second man – and that’s when the guns came out. The Fremont couple – forced out of the car and stranded on an Oakland freeway – had just become victims of one of a growing list of Craigslist robberies, dubbed by police “robberies by appointment.”
It’s a worrisome trend that has prompted renewed warnings from authorities, who say the criminals have been especially busy in the East Bay over the last few months.
In Berkeley, police say, four victims hoping to buy cars off the popular Internet site have been robbed at gunpoint since June, possibly by the same two men. There have been several other such holdups in Oakland, and similar heists have been reported this month in Castro Valley and Fremont.
“It’s unfortunate that a tool such as Craigslist is being used to target people,” said Officer Jennifer Coats, a spokeswoman for the Berkeley Police Department. “We want to make people more aware of the dangers of responding to either a Craigslist ad or another type of online ad or sales site so that they are more cautious when they do set up meetings.”
Craigslist, based in San Francisco, went online in 1996, first in the Bay Area and now in about 50 countries. It was used by about 55 million people nationwide in July to find dates, housing, babysitters and items to buy, from sofas to electronics to cars, according to comScore, an Internet measurement firm.
Craigslist, while deploring the criminal use of its site, says such activity is “extremely low” in the context of the millions of transactions that take place without a hitch.
Jim Buckmaster, the company’s chief executive officer, bristled when a rival company commissioned a report last year that concluded that Craigslist “has become a cesspool of crime.”
The site is responsible for “hundreds of millions or billions of safe transactions,” Buckmaster responded.
For enterprising criminals, however, Craigslist can be a multiple listing of potential targets. Police agencies say the popularity of Craigslist and the relative ease with which people can offer their wares online opens the door to all sorts of fraud, theft and holdups.
But getting a full picture of Craigslist-related robberies and thefts is impossible, because police departments don’t categorize them that way. Based on anecdotal evidence, police say, it appears that it has been fairly common since the site went online, rapidly surpassing newspaper classified ads for buying and selling.
“I just think they’re taking advantage of the new technology,” said Lt. Pat Halleran of the Belmont Police Department, where detectives arrested an alleged Craigslist scammer this month. They “could have done the same scam with a newspaper ad. No matter what happens, when something new develops, there’s always people who will take advantage of it.” Craigslist officials say they cooperate fully with law enforcement. In ideal situations, police simply follow an electronic trail, identifying the robbers by tracing them through the computers used to post the ads.
In Oakland, police have investigated numerous robberies tied to Craigslist over the years, but the recent holdups have prompted Berkeley and Oakland police to compare notes to see whether the same people are responsible.
Oakland police have issued a warning about robbers who advertised cars purportedly for sale at attractive prices. Just before the final sale, the sellers switch the agreed-upon location for the deal to a spot near Lake Merritt, confusing out-of-town victims unfamiliar with the city.
“What we’re seeing is the seller will change the location. That’s part of the M.O.,” said Officer Johnna Watson, an Oakland police spokeswoman. “The buyer should be in control and designate the meeting location.”
Car buyers should also be wary if the car they plan to purchase shows up with no license plates or with only paper plates, police say. The Mercedes in the incident in Oakland this week had no plates. The two holdup men have not been arrested.
Timing: Set up appointments during the day.
Location: Insist on a public meeting place.
Let someone know: Tell a friend or family member where you’re going.
Phone: Take your cell phone.
Money: Do not travel with large amounts of cash.
Backup: Consider having a friend accompany you.
Be careful: Trust your instincts – if anything seems suspicious, leave.
Source: Bay Area police departments
Henry K. Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @henryklee
Henry K. Lee has been a reporter for KTVU-TV since 2015. Prior to that he worked for the San Francisco Chronicle for more than a decade. He covers breaking news, crime, courts and aviation. He has appeared on television and radio programs to discuss high-profile cases and is the author of “Presumed Dead – A True-Life Murder Mystery,” about the Hans Reiser murder case in Oakland.
He studied premed at UC Berkeley before graduating with a psychology major and was a reporter and editor at the Daily Californian student newspaper on campus.