Crime online: Craigslist popular with buyers, sellers and criminals alike

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by Jeff McShan / 11 News

khou.com

Posted on February 3, 2011 at 11:28 PM

Updated Friday, Feb 4 at 3:00 AM

HOUSTON -- With its ability to bring local buyers and sellers together online, Craigslist.com has become so popular here and around the world that reportedly it's getting 49 million unique visitors a month. But the high volume of viewers has attracted criminals, too.

In the State of Washington, a man selling an expensive ring on Craigslist was shot and killed by a suspect who was invited to the home to look at the ring.

In Omaha, Neb., group of suspects have been stealing from people trying to sell items on Craigslist. They meet, often in a public place, and the suspects just grab the item for sale and take off.

Just last week in Corpus Christi, a man selling a PlayStation on Craigslist was held up at gunpoint by someone claiming to be a buyer.

Working with the Houston Police Department,11 News learned there are dozens of Craigslist crimes reported in Harris County every month.

One ongoing case involves an auto theft ring that is going on at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, where in recent weeks 18 Enterprise rental cars were stolen. Where did the automobiles end up? Police say they were put up for sale on Craigslist.

A woman we will call Diana bought one of them. A Ford Fusion that briefly was parked in front of her home.

"Well, I am angry," Diana said.

Diana and her husband paid $8,000 cash for the car.

"We worked for a year to save up the money trying to buy a good car you know," Diana said.

Diana told police she bought the car from a woman who told her it would take a couple of days to get the title for the vehicle because she had just gotten divorced. Diana said she would buy the car only if the seller would give her a copy of her driver’s license in case something went wrong.

"She told us that she was always getting divorced and that every time she would move from city to city. She said she would misplace the title, but could get it soon," Diana said.

The problem was, the driver’s license -- like the Ford -- was also stolen. And because of that, police briefly detained an innocent woman.

Making deals and money is a big reason why sellers use Craigslist, too. But through our investigation, we discovered they can suddenly become victims.

We met a Houston man we are calling "Jaime" who sells iPhones on Craigslist. In December, he was robbed by a potential buyer in broad daylight. It happened in a busy parking lot in front of a McDonald's restaurant.

But police say meeting in a public place is just not good enough anymore.

"He took the money out of his pocket and he checks it. He then gives it to me and I see it is fake money," Jaime said. "When I see that the money is fake and turn to him and he shows me a gun. There was nothing I could do. I closed my door and took off. But I did get his license plate number."

And a month later, the vehicle plate number paid off. HPD's auto theft investigators found the suspect staying in a small hotel off the Northwest Freeway. Lee Ernest Price, 20, was arrested and charged with aggravated robbery and for having counterfeit money.

Craigslist robbers seem to be more sophisticated than the usual scam artists found on the Internet. For example, they can make you feel at ease by calling you back from a local phone number, and they usually ask to meet in a public place. They are familiar with the cities they work in.

Hoping to inform people of crimes on Craigslist, Trench Reynolds started a website called craigscrimelist.org. On his site you can see hundreds of news stories about crimes on Craigslist. Many people blog on the site about scams they have encountered.

"I've gotten e-mails from people who have thanked me for warning them about particular scams they have come in contact with," said Reynolds.

On craigscrimelist.org, you can also find tips on how to protect yourself and where you should go if you have become a victim.

"We don't need those kinds of problems," Diana said. "We just tried to figure it out and we called the police for help."

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