Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011 | 2 a.m.
While bargain shoppers troll Craigslist for deals, criminals are increasingly prowling the site to lure them into traps, police say.
The setup goes something like this: A “seller” posts an ad for an item such as an iPad or an expensive watch — often at an incredibly low price. He lures in a prospective buyer then arranges a meeting, perhaps in a remote parking lot in the evening.
When the buyer shows up with the cash, instead of getting a great deal, he gets a gun pointed in his face and is robbed.
In recent weeks, police have seen a string of robberies — some armed — related to Craigslist transactions, said Metro Police Sgt. Eric Kerns, whose problem-solving unit in northwest Las Vegas frequently investigates Craigslist-related crimes.
“There’s a lot of it right now because people are getting ready for Christmas and buying gifts,” Kerns said.
Police urge those engaging in transactions that originate online to be careful. Don’t invite strangers to your home. Meet in a public place with witnesses, and don’t go alone.
“You just have to use common sense,” Kerns said. “For the most part, things go as they’re supposed to.”
Metro doesn’t track the number of Craigslist-related crimes because they fall into other categories, such as robberies, but police say they’re seeing more scams as the online classified-ad giant has grown.
Craigslist registers more than 20 billion pages views per month, and 50 million people in the United States alone use the site, according to a company fact sheet.
Recent Craigslist victims in Southern Nevada have not been harmed, but police point to violent crimes elsewhere as a reminder of the potential dangers.
In Ohio, police are investigating the slayings of three men they say were lured to their deaths by a bogus job advertisement on the site.
Craigslist officials could not be reached for comment.
Henderson Police detective Wayne Nichols, who has been studying Craigslist crimes for several years, led a training session last week for officers from Henderson, North Las Vegas and Metro.
The goal was to gather officers from various disciplines, including robbery, narcotics and vice, and give them a primer about how such crimes are hatched through Craigslist and similar sites, such as Backpage.com.
“Usually drugs are somehow part of the equation,” said Nichols, who has trained officers nationwide and in Canada. “Property and drug crimes — they go hand in hand.”
Five years ago, this type of training wasn’t on the map. But as Craigslist has become a household name, monitoring the online marketplace could be a full-time job if resources allowed it, police say.
“Today, it’s definitely a staple of our society,” said Nichols, who works in the department’s computer crimes unit. “It’s not uncommon to deal with an older person who browses for the best deals on Craigslist, nor is it uncommon now for even a teenager to sell some old electronics on Craigslist.”
Police also commonly see criminals selling stolen goods to unsuspecting customers on Craigslist, said Walt Denison, a sergeant in the Henderson Police property crimes bureau.
“We see a lot of people doing auto burglaries and trying to off the property quick,” he said. “They get an iPhone from a car and turn around and try to sell the phone as quickly as possible.”
In some cases, the crook’s scheme crumbles when the real owner spots his or her possessions on the site. That’s how Henderson Police recently arrested two men suspected of peddling stolen items.
A Henderson man found his guitar, which had been stolen from a storage unit, on a Craigslist posting, police said. The advertisement featured a picture of the guitar, which had an identifiable engraving of the word “failure” on it, an arrest report stated.
Police set up a fake transaction to buy the guitar and arrested two men who showed up — Marlon Haggard Jr., 20, and Timothy Simmons, 30 — on counts of possession of stolen property and conspiracy to commit a crime, according to the arrest report.
Haggard allegedly told police he received the guitar and its accessories from another man and assumed they were stolen, the report states.
“We’re seeing an unbelievable amount of people who go (online) and say, ‘Wow, this is my stolen property,’” Nichols said.
In those instances, people should not try to reclaim the items themselves but call police, Nichols said.