Rash of app-related robberies reported
Apps designed to make buying and selling more convenient have also created a convenient way to rob people, frustrating police in the D.C. area.
Police in Alexandria and other jurisdictions have seen a spate of crimes through the apps LetGo and OfferUp, which show items for sale in a user’s area and do so in a picture-heavy interface that many consider more user-friendly than Craigslist or eBay. Both also host their own text-message systems for scheduling in-person local exchanges.
“It’s like fish in a barrel,” said Alexandria police spokeswoman Crystal Nosal. “The suspects know they’re meeting up with someone who either has cash, because they’re buying a phone, or a phone on them, because they’re selling it. You’re arranging your own robbery online.”
On Jan. 13, Alexandria police arrested two juveniles and a 19year-old in several recent cellphone robberies. Two of the thefts were set up with LetGo, one with OfferUp, city police said.
Robbers will pretend to be buying or selling something, usually phones or shoes, police said. When the target appears, the robber will take either the item for sale or the money intended to buy it. Both the perpetrators and their victims tend to be in their teens or 20s.
In one Alexandria case, Nosal said, a robber asked to test a phone before paying for it — and then simply ran off.
That was one of 13 app-related robberies in the city from Sept. 24 through last week. Many have taken place near the Braddock Road Metro station, which while public is separated from the nearby residential neighborhood by a large plaza.
OfferUp said in a statement that company officials “do not tolerate criminal activity” and provide whatever information they can to authorities when robberies occur. They encourage people to meet in public places and possibly at a police station. So does LetGo, which says it “uses a combination of human and artificial intelligence to help keep our platform safe and fun to use.”
Police said that they assume the robbers then sell the stolen phones online.
OfferUp also has been plagued by sales of stolen goods, but the sales have also made it easier for police to solve some crimes. In the 2015 Christmas season, Montgomery County police helped recover $20,000 in camera equipment stolen from a Germantown car and listed for sale on OfferUp.
“It’s like fish in a barrel . . . . You’re arranging your own robbery online.” Crystal Nosal, Alexandria police spokeswoman
The District counted more than 70 robberies last year using social media, the vast majority through OfferUp, D.C. police spokeswoman Aquita Brown said. The department has three offices where people can set up safe sales under police supervision: the 3rd District office on V Street NW, the 6th District office in Deanwood and the Harbor Patrol on the Southwest waterfront.
Prince George’s County reported 61 robberies connected to social-media apps last year and 45 arrests. In one case, police officers set up a sting operation after two teenagers were robbed at gunpoint while trying to buy a dirt bike.
County police suggested meeting at a shopping center and to “always try to bring a second person with you.”
Cellphone thefts related to mobile apps are so pervasive that there’s a YouTube video poking fun at it. In the video, an honest person is trying to sell a phone and an honest person is trying to buy it — but both are too afraid of the other to complete the transaction.