It was 6:40 pm, and he was late. I tapped my toes against the pavement repeatedly, as though that would magically conjure my buyer. It didn’t. Still, I couldn’t stop tapping. It was winter in New Hampshire and I was freezing, waiting on the street for a stranger to pay me and pick up my package.
This may seem like the beginning of a plot to a drug deal gone bad in some movie. It wasn't. I was just trying to sell my old iPad.
When I sold my old Apple tablet to help fund a new one a couple of years ago, I got a number of things right, like getting a decent purchase price. But I also did several things wrong. I rewind the scene in my mind now, and I'm horrified by my naiveté. There's no sugar-coating this: I put myself in a situation that could have gone badly. Very badly.
This season is a prime time for individuals to get top-dollar for new or gently used tech, or pick up some holiday gift bargains. And, possibly to avoid online scam artists, many of those transactions take place via face-to-face meetings. But those types of meetings carry great risk.
In these circumstances, cash is almost always used, the devices are usually valuable, and despite those facts, people often don’t safeguard themselves enough.
It all makes for an irresistible opportunity for criminals.
A couple of weeks ago, tragedy struck 22-year-old Ikenna Uwakah, a San Francisco man who was killed by someone who responded to his Instagram ad for a PlayStation 4. They decided to meet near an intersection in the city’s Bayview District. This turned out to be the scene of the murder. The crime was not only violent, but senseless. Uwakah had already handed over the game console when the assailant fired the fatal shots.
I think back to my own Craigslist sale, and the similarities put a chill in my veins. We were both selling gadgets worth hundreds of dollars (though my old iPad sold for half the PS4’s $600 asking price). We also decided against conducting the transaction at our homes, for obvious reasons, so we both arranged to meet our prospective buyers on a public street. And we both had someone with us. Uwakah took his girlfriend; I brought my husband.
But I lived in a small New England town at the time, which is a very different setting than a rough-and-tumble San Francisco neighborhood known for violent crime. So that would have been safer—right?
A quick scan of recent headlines reveals just how wrong-headed that line of thinking is: Criminal incidents have taken place from Lodi and Bakersfield, Calif. to Chilliwack, B.C., Indianapolis, Ind. and Tonawanda, NY. Environment doesn’t seem to matter either. Criminals seem to be bolder than ever, committing illicit acts in locations ranging from victim’s homes to outdoor locations and coffee shops.
And it’s not just sellers who need to exercise caution. Some perpetrators take the opposite tack of posting fake online sales to lure unsuspecting people into traps.
Buyer (And Seller) Beware
In the past, indie sellers primarily relied on marketplaces like Craigslist to sell their old gear. Many still do, but it’s worth noting that Uwakah took a different route: He used Instagram. Indeed, the photo-sharing service has become a popular place for companies and individuals to peddle gadgets and other goods. And with the swelling ranks of sites and social networks—including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and many others—in the mix, the public has an unprecedented number of ways to promote their goods.
No wonder crimes rooted in online sales are a major concern for the police. Law enforcement officials across the country have been spreading the word to urge people to take the following safety precautions:
- Choose a well-trafficked public spot for the meeting, such as a mall.
- Schedule the meeting during the daytime. Even if the transaction goes well, you could be followed home, and visibility is compromised at night.
- Bring another person with you. Never conduct transactions with strangers alone.
- Talk to the buyer/seller a couple of times before the meeting.
- Confirm the identity of anyone you intend to do business with, including asking for ID when you meet.
- Verify the other person’s contact information.
Common sense is the name of the game. This goes for any time you decide to meet someone in the real world that you met online. Be it a date from OKCupid or a gathering of a cool new Dungeons & Dragons club, do your research to determine these people are who they say they are. Protect yourself by not getting into a potentially dangerous situation. Of course, the safest measure of all is to simply avoid in-person transactions. There are several ways to get value from old gadgets, whether from buyback companies and retailer trade-in programs, or by selling online and shipping the items. Though you’ll want to keep a sharp eye out for online scammers, particularly in the latter case, the only threat is losing out on a device or cash. Better that than something far more valuable.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr user Jeff Ruane.