TAMPA — You really like the couch you found online but you’ve heard the horror stories about what can happen when you show up at a stranger’s apartment carrying a wad of cash.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office thinks it has found a solution: The agency’s parking lots.
The sheriff’s office on Wednesday announced a program designed to provide a safe meeting place for those who want to sell something and those who want to buy. Called Operation Safe Sale, the program allows online sellers and buyers to conduct their business in the parking lot at each of HCSO’s four patrol district offices.
“We want you to come here and feel safe,” said Sgt. Steve Lewis.
The new program is meant to reduce the number of robberies and other crimes that occur when potential buyers or sellers are targeted online. It is not a growing problem in Hillsborough County, Lewis said, but it is an ongoing one.
“It’s not going to happen in our parking lot,” he said.
The district office parking lots are well-lit and monitored by video 24 hours a day, he said. An armed deputy is always stationed at the front desk and others are in and out of the parking lot all day.
The district office parking lots frequently are used as meeting points for parents who have joint custody of their children, Lewis said. They meet at the sheriff’s office and pass off the children to the other parent.
“That’s kind of where we got the idea,” he said. “If we do it with that, why not do it with this?”
The addresses for the patrol district offices are:
♦ Patrol District 1 - 14102 N. 20th St.
♦ Patrol District 2 - 2310 N. Falkenburg Road;
♦ Patrol District 3 - 7202 Gunn Hwy;
♦ Patrol District 4 - 508 33rd Street.
Such a program might have helped Mannix Santos.
In December, Santos, 36, posted a Samsung Galaxy cell phone for sale on Craigslist.
A few days later, he got a phone call from an interested buyer. The pair agreed to meet in a Seffner Sweetbay parking lot. While his wife and 13-year-old daughter waited in the car, Santos got out to complete the sale. The other man took the phone, but instead of paying Santos the $300 he was asking, the man pulled out a gun and pointed it at Santos’ head.
The robber and an accomplice drove off. Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies arrested the men two days later.
Few statistics are available that show the number of crimes committed involving Craiglist and other classified ad sites because police don’t separate them from other robberies or assaults.
On the safety page of the Craigslist website, the company lists several “common sense precautions” users can take to ensure safe transactions. Those tips include meeting in a public place, bringing a friend and taking a cell phone.
“The overwhelming majority of Craigslist users are trustworthy and well-intentioned,” the website reads. “With billions of human interactions facilitated, the incidence of violent crime is extremely low.”
But many crimes are reported all across the country that involve some sort of online transaction.
Last November, a Pennsylvania woman, 19-year-old Miranda Barbour, made national news after she was charged with stabbing and killing a man she met on Craigslist. She later claimed to have killed more than 20 other people in four states.
In February, police in Augusta, Ga., were investigating after a man who sold an iPad on Craigslist was paid in counterfeit money. Last month, two Brevard County teenagers were charged with multiple counts of armed robbery after police said the teens had posted televisions and electronic equipment for sale on Craigslist, lured potential buyers to vacant houses and robbed them of their cash.
Despite safety concerns, Santos continues to buy and sell items online. He has already conducted such a transaction in one of the HCSO parking lots, and said it went smoothly.
“After what happened, it made me feel great that I could come to a safe place,” he said.