Rash of app-re­lated rob­beries re­ported

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - THE RE­GION BY RACHEL WEINER rachel.weiner@wash­post.com

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.

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