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Police using their parking lots to fight crimes

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Some police departments around the country are inviting customers to use their headquarters as meeting places for internet sales. Some police departments around the country are inviting customers to use their headquarters as meeting places for internet sales.

(RNN) - Type the name of any major city and Craigslist into Google, and there is a good chance the search results will produce a story about someone using the website to lure a victim into a meeting for criminal purposes.

Police departments are fighting that problem head-on by inviting customers to use their headquarters as meeting places.

East Chicago, an Indiana town of 30,000 situated on Lake Michigan, announced in early May residents could use its parking lot and lobby for cash transactions with people they have never met.

Police Chief Mark Becker said the program, which his department calls "Operation Safe Sale," is not only for people who initiate business deals online.

"We've had, over the last year or so, reports of Craigslist transactions where people get raped or robbed. We weren't just targeting Craigslist - it's open to everyone," Becker said. "I'm really amazed we didn't do it before. The idea came from a patrol officer who said, 'Hello, why don't we do this?' I said, 'yeah, why don't we?'"

The East Chicago Police Department offers police supervision Monday through Saturday for people who give headquarters advance notice. They can also make deals there anonymously.

Ankeny, IA - a city of about 46,000 people just north of Des Moines - made a similar offer to its residents Wednesday.

According to Lt. Ben Bowersox, the department made the move proactively.

"We don't want to make everyone think internet sales are dangerous and only criminals do them," Bowersox said. "We personally, in our jurisdiction, have not seen these types of crimes."

The same cannot be said of nearby Des Moines, the state capital and a city more than four times the size of Ankeny.

In the first two weeks of May, two robberies with virtually the same modus operandi were reported. Someone who had listed a motorcycle on Craigslist met the buyers and then robbed them at a church.

While better serving the people they're sworn to protect, some departments are concerned they leave themselves open to legal harm.

Becker said other police chiefs called him expressing concern about liability for such a program.

"You can get sued for anything," Becker said. "We can pull behind a car and turn our lights on, and the guy's got a flat tire and gets hit. You don't have to call us. You can use our parking lot, where there's a camera there and it's well-lit. Or you can use the lobby, which is also well-lit and full of cameras."

One of the most notorious examples of these types of crimes involved Philip Markoff, known as the "Craigslist killer."

Before Markoff committed suicide in jail, he was charged with the 2009 robberies of two women and the robbery and murder of a third woman, who answered an online ad for a massage.

Officials often advise people meeting to complete online transactions to do it in a public place, but sometimes that isn't enough.

It is also important to do it during the day in a well-populated area. Bring along a friend and take pictures of the vehicle and license plate of the other person. Arrange meetings during the week so banks and financial institutions can be contacted if there is a problem with the transaction.

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