Local police agencies setting up safe zones for online sales

Signs designate the exchange areas at North Charleston City Hall and two police substations.

The rise of online sales of electronics, vehicles and concert tickets has led to a darker side: meetings between strangers that sometimes go awry.

Two local police departments have joined a nationwide trend of creating “safe zones,” where people can meet to exchange goods sold through eBay, Craigslist or other social media sites.

On Friday, North Charleston unveiled three “online exchange zones,” two parking spots in well-lit police department lots that have video cameras trained on them around the clock.

Mount Pleasant plans to unveil its own safety zone at police headquarters in a week or two, said Inspector Chip Googe.

While most online transactions go off without a hitch, the ones that go wrong attract lots of attention.

This week, Summerville police arrested a suspect in connection with two sexual assaults and stabbings in cases that they said involved online encounters set up on free classified site backpage.com.

In October 2013, William Alex Apps of Charleston was shot to death after arranging to sell his truck through Craigslist.

“By creating these exchange zones, it is our hope that the potential for robbery and fraud will be eliminated,” North Charleston Chief Eddie Driggers said.

The idea was suggested at a community meeting by someone who is new to North Charleston, said North Charleston Crime Prevention Officer Maria Leahy. The practice appears to have started in 2014 in Boca Raton, Fla., and has spread across the country, according to The Washington Post.

“People are setting up to meet a stranger,” Leahy said. “We want to offer them an opportunity to meet at a safer location. If someone doesn’t want to meet you here, then you have to have a little red flag to say, ‘Is the deal worth it?’ We hope if someone would not meet you here, that you would reconsider that transaction for your safety and the safety of others.”

The officers will not verify that items exchanged are not stolen, and they will not run criminal background checks on participants, she said. In addition, officers won’t participate in the goods exchange, but “if a citizen is here and feels uncomfortable, they have the right to ask us to standby for them,” Leahy said.

Exchange of firearms is prohibited at the North Charleston sites, but Mount Pleasant currently has no plans to ban any items, Googe said.

Lisa Jackson, a North Charleston resident who recently sold some household items online, said she would use the new safe zones in the future.

“You have to be careful with anything you buy or sell online,” she said. “I am a single mom, and I’ve been very careful, but I would feel much more comfortable if I could meet possible buyers someplace like this, where I know I am being watched over, instead of in a parking lot somewhere.”

In North Charleston, the zones are at City Hall, the police department South Bureau, 3401 Rivers Ave., and North Bureau, 7272 Cross County Road.

Each location has four cameras around the outside of the building and a monitor inside, she said. City Hall has additional cameras. The cameras were donated by Firehouse Subs.

Reach Brenda Rindge at (843) 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.