How to Protect Yourself Against Online Classified Ad Crime

Craigslist was linked to 330 crimes, 12 murders and 105 robberies or assaults in the United States in 2011 alone, according to one study by AIM Group, which called Craigslist a “cesspool of crime.”

Anonymous online conversations can lead to poor offline behavior. A rash of robberies in Oakland, California, for example, was traced to a gang of men advertising luxury cars for sale on Craigslist and then robbing and, in some cases, assaulting buyers who responded, according to a report by Aim Group.

Craigslist, however, called the study “false and defamatory” because it was commissioned by Oodle, a Craigslist competitor that encourages people who post or respond to use their real identity on Facebook.

Another service, ByOwner.com, offers more than 91 different categories of products and services. Advertisements are 100 percent free. And users that do not want their reviews to be featured in 1st or 2nd degree connections can opt-out to protect their privacy.

ByOwner uses a four-step verification process that utilizes a sophisticated social graphing tool for a more transparent process to research and complete safer classified advertising transactions, and has recently launched the “Friends of Friends” service, which highlights trusted reviews and opinions using social media connections from Facebook and LinkedIn.

“When searching through our classified ads, users will see their friend’s postings as well as postings from their friend’s connections,” says ByOwner.com’s CEO Greg Sullivan. “The new Friends of Friends feature increases the probability of an even greater personalized classified ad shopping experience by highlighting mutually connected users from a larger network of 2nd and 3rd tiered shoppers that may also know the people whom shoppers trust the most.”

The feature takes classified advertising from being an anonymous experience to one of transparency. “Being connected to a buyer or seller through a mutual connection greatly reduces the risk of becoming a victim of someone with mal-intent,” Sullivan said.

While conversations start online, they often end in face-to-face interactions. But anonymous online conversations can lead to what researchers call a “disinhibition effect,” when people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. There are several reasons for online disinhibition:

  • When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from their real world and identity, they don’t have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within the full context of who they “really” are. When acting out hostile feelings, the person doesn’t have to take responsibility for those actions and may even convince themselves that those behaviors “aren’t me at all.” In psychology this is called “dissociation.”
  • The invisibility afforded by text communication gives people the courage to go places and do things that they otherwise wouldn’t.
  • In email and message boards, where there are delays in feedback, some people may experience asynchronous communication as “running away” after posting a message that is personal, emotional or hostile. It feels safe putting it “out there” where it can be left behind. In some cases, as Kali Munro, an online psychotherapist, describes it, the person may be participating in an “emotional hit and run.”
  • People may feel that the imaginary characters they “created” exist in a different space, that one’s online persona along with the online others live in an make-believe dimension, a dream world, separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the real world. They split or “dissociate” online fiction from offline fact.
  • People are reluctant to say what they really think as they stand before an authority figure. A fear of disapproval and punishment from on high dampens the spirit. But online, in what feels like a peer relationship – with the appearances of “authority” minimized – people are much more willing to speak out or misbehave.
  • The online disinhibition effect will interact with personality variables, in some cases resulting in a small deviation from the person’s baseline (offline) behavior, while in other cases causing dramatic changes.

classifiedCraigslist says hundreds of thousands of safe transactions take place through the service, but sites like Craigslist and eBay do potentially open up users to “robbery by appointment” because criminals can identify victims and have the luxury of scheduling their crimes.