When you buy or sell something on a classified ad website, there's always the sticky problem of where to meet and make the exchange. You may soon have a safe new option. Following a spate of attacks connected to Craigslist transactions, towns and policy departments are setting up Internet transaction safety zones.

Complete with security cameras, these zones are designed to protect you when you use the Internet to buy from or sell to strangers. And they’re located in a place guaranteed to repel most would-be criminals: the lobby or parking lot of a police station.

“You shouldn’t just meet in a public place anymore, because public places can be very risky,” says Peter Zollman, founding principal of the AIM Group (an acronym for the Advanced Interactive Media Group LLC), an Internet commerce consultancy that has helped set up Safe Trade Stations across the country. “A number of people doing transactions involving Craigslist and other online marketplaces have been robbed and even killed in places they thought were safe, like a Walmart parking lot.”

“Craigslist is a great service, and the people behind it are good people,” Zollman says. “The problem is, a lot of its users aren’t. There are a lot of people out there who want to rip you off.”

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That’s what 70-year-old Feroz Chranya of Sugar Land, Texas, found out when he arranged to meet a prospective buyer for his car in the spring of 2015.

When a woman responded to his ad, he agreed to meet her in a public parking lot at a nearby mall. She was accompanied by a man, and Chranya agreed to give them a test drive. Once in the vehicle, he found himself pistol-whipped and thrown out of the car in front of Macy’s, with the thieves escaping in his car.

“I was so shocked,” Chranya told ABC-13 reporters, adding that he was very grateful to be alive.

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The town of Butler, New Jersey has decided to be proactive in protecting its citizens. In January the Butler Police Department joined 200 other cities in setting up an Internet transaction safety zone.

“We don’t want to take credit for the idea of these safety zones,” says the AIM group’s Zollman. “That came from a policer officer in Milwaukee, who said, ‘Just tell people to come down to the precinct’ after a spate of Craigslist robberies. What we’re doing is working with police agencies to create Safe Trade Stations or similar zones to improve safety around transactions that begin online.”

“Police departments love it,” Zollman says of the Internet transaction safety zone idea, “because it costs them nothing, reduces crime and is a great community service. This way people can come to the station for something other than a parking ticket or citation. It’s a way the community can see the police in a positive light.”

If your town doesn't yet have one of these zones, here are some tips for safely completing an online classified ad transaction, courtesy of the AIM Group’s Safe Trade Stations program:

  • Agree to meet the buyer or seller at a police station, sheriff's office or another law-enforcement facility. Some police stations make their lobby or similar open-to-the-public area available.“No place is 100 percent guaranteed, but it’s probably the safest place you could possibly meet,” says Zollman. “And if you have something like a sofa or car that won’t start, easy: Meet at the police station to exchange ID before the transaction.”
  • Meet only in the daytime (unless the police department has established 24-hour safety zone).
  • If you can’t meet inside the police station or sheriff's office, meet in the parking lot. “It’s not as safe as indoors,” according to AIM Group materials, “but it’s much safer than the proverbial ‘meet in a public place.’”

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Diana is an award-winning writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in magazine, video, book and digital journalism, with a specialty in health coverage. She was a longtime writer and news editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting; has written for publications from the Washington Post to the Times of London syndicate; and has served as a senior and/or consulting editor at Time Inc. Health, Hippocrates, HealthDay News Service and Reporting on Health. She was also editor in chief of Consumer Health Interactive, a national health and medical web site, and has reported on finance for Blueshift Research and PBS Frontline. Before joining SafeBee, she was editor of Bioenergy Connection, a national magazine about bioenergy at UC Berkeley. Her favorite safety tip: Wear a bike helmet.