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‘Transaction Zones’ a Simple, Innovative Approach to Safe Merchandise Exchanges 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

It’s a 21st-century crime story we hear too often. Someone browses an online commerce site akin to Craigslist, finds a desired piece of merchandise, arranges an in-person meet-up with the seller to pay for it, and then becomes the victim of robbery, assault or worse.

Now, a quick question: What if that buyer had requested they meet up at the local police station?

It’s not a would-be criminal’s first choice of venue for an ambush, clearly. And that’s information the Burlington Police Department (BPD) is putting to good use.

In late May, the department announced the implementation of “transaction zones” in the police department’s parking lot for anyone wanting a safe place to exchange goods or money. The zones are marked by “transaction zone” signage and are under camera surveillance 24-hours a day. “That provides a fairly safe place where respectful and honorable people would make that exchange of goods and currency,” said Burlington Police Chief Jeff Smythe.

It’s a concept that a number of other police agencies around the country have adopted in service to their residents. Smythe said he’s seen the kind of crime that transaction zones are designed to prevent.

“We had literally an armed robbery related to this in Burlington just a month or two ago,” he said during an interview in June. A youth had listed a nice pair of athletic shoes for sale online and met with a buyer – a disingenuous one, it turned out – in a store parking lot. “And three individuals in the car wanted to see the shoes, and they pulled out a gun ultimately and robbed this kid,” Smythe said.

Other cases might involve counterfeit money, or extortion, or “snatch and grab” theft, he added.

“Typically, criminals will not want to conduct fraudulent business at a police department,” BPD Community Relations Division Capt. Mark Rascoe said in a press release about the 24-hour transaction zones unveiled there. He added that the public has access to phones in the lobby if they need to contact police in the after-hours.

Word of Burlington’s implementation won rave reviews on social media. BPD’s Facebook page was alight with positive comments from residents, like this one: “An idea all police departments should consider...” Another: “Now the community has a safe place to make exchanges.... if they won’t meet you there (at the police department), you probably don’t want to meet them anywhere!!”

That’s advice with which Smythe wholeheartedly agrees. While transaction
zones are designed to prevent this brand of crime, he offers the following
additional tips for anyone who might engage in in-person transactions with
strangers:

  • “The first is just trust your instincts. If something doesn’t sound right, it’s
    probably not right.”
  • “It’s great to bring a friend, so you’ve got somebody else there to keep an eye on things and to keep an eye on you.”
  • “Do a little bit of checking on the (seller). A lot of the Internet (sales)
    services offer an ability to give somebody a score or a rating, and so you should check that.”
  • “And if you need to involve the police, you’re welcome to do that as well. If you get there and there’s some very suspicious criteria or something going on, pick up the phone and call the police.”

Bottom line: Don’t let the bad guys ruin the positives of online classifieds.
Transaction zones are an easy way to foil malicious efforts.

“We think bartering and exchange and Internet sales are a great way to make
sure that people get good value for their products,” said Smythe. “That’s good for
folks and good for the economy, so we’re proud and happy to support that.”