Image: Linda Sanders
Lui Kit Wong  /  AP
Linda Sanders, mother of James Sanders is comforted by son, Derek, after the arraignment of the three of the four suspects charged in the killing of James Sanders.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan contributor
updated 5/13/2010 9:54:13 AM ET 2010-05-13T13:54:13

No one expects to get robbed or physically assaulted when they place an ad on the Internet. The biggest risk most sellers face is the possibility of being ripped off by a con artist. Even so, most transactions go without a hitch. Most, but not all.

On April 29 Jim Sanders, 43, of Edgewood, Wash., was murdered during a home-invasion robbery. He had placed an ad on Craigslist offering a woman’s gold and diamond ring appraised at $2,760. The ad included Sanders’ home and cell phone numbers.

A woman called saying she wanted to buy the ring for a Mother’s Day present, so Sanders gave her his home address. She showed up with three men. One of them had a gun.

“We were having family night, and then evil walked in the door,” says Sanders’ widow, Charlene. “It was horrific.”

Police say the robbers tied up Jim, his wife and their two sons. They pistol-whipped Jim and one of the boys, then shot Jim three times. They took the ring that was for sale, then put the gun to Charlene’s head and forced her to hand over her wedding ring.

Video: Craigslist ad involved in deadly home invasion?

“This is a cautionary tale, a horrible crime,” says Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist. “It should give everyone pause in terms of how they deal with this type of Craigslist exchange, meeting up with strangers who know you may have something valuable.”

When I asked Craigslist to comment on the Sanders’ case, its public relations firm sent me the following statement:

“Our sympathies go out to the victim's family and friends. Violent crime on Craigslist is extremely rare. Nevertheless, we do urge our users to use the same common sense precautions online that they would use offline.”

Four suspects are now in jail, charged with first-degree murder and robbery. Police say the same group robbed another family in Western Washington earlier in the week. That family had advertised a flat-screen TV for sale on Craigslist and had given out their home address.

In that case, the would-be buyers arrived with guns, tied up the family and ransacked the house. They took off with jewelry, electronics and cash.

Michael Kaiser, president of the National Cyber Security Alliance, says criminals have become more and more adept at using the information on the Internet to commit crimes. “We don’t need to be scared or frightened,” he says, “but we have to use common sense.”

Creating the ad
All the experts I talked to say you need to think about security as you prepare your online advertisement. Don’t use your full name and don’t list your address or phone number.

If you use photos in your ad, make sure you just show the item for sale. Don’t include family members or any identifiable information.

Maybe you’re trying to sell a car and you take a picture outside the house. That photo should not show your home address or a street name/number. Block out the license plate number. A criminal could plug that number into a database and find out who you are and where you live.

“You want to use a service that allows you to be anonymous,” advises Linda Criddle, president of the Safe Internet Alliance. “You’re trying to sell an item; you’re not trying to give away information.”

As the seller, you need to control as much of the transaction as possible. The safest way to conduct the transaction is via e-mail. You can create a free disposable e-mail account specifically for your online ads.

Resist requests to give out your phone number. If the buyer really needs to talk to you, get their phone number and call them. Use the one-time caller ID block on your phone to keep the number private. Your phone book or phone service provider can explain how to do that.

Meeting face-to-face
With some transactions you may need to meet the potential buyer to let them inspect the item or to complete the sale. In that case, you need to be smart.

“The risk is always there when you have a person-to-person meeting,” Criddle cautions. “And the steps needed to mitigate those risks are always important.”

For small items that are easily transported arrange to meet in a public place, such as a coffee shop, at a time when there are plenty of people around. Bring someone with you – for added security and peace of mind.

Criddle says when a transaction involves a significant amount of money you might want to meet at your bank. And she’s not kidding.

“You want to be in the safest environment,” she says. “Well, this is the safest environment for you and it’s also the safest environment for the buyer. There are security cameras there, people and often a security guard.”

This way, you don’t have to walk around with a lot of cash. You can deposit it as soon as the sale is done.

Protect your house
Your home is your safe space. Inviting strangers there is never a good idea. But if you’re selling a large item, such as a coach, refrigerator or TV set, you may not have a choice. If possible, get it out of the house. Put it in the garage or driveway.

Don’t be alone. When setting up the meeting, tell the potential buyer others will be there. Kaiser of the Cyber Security Alliance suggests saying something like this: “Come over on Sunday between 2 and 3 o’clock. My cousins are visiting and we’ll have a few others coming to look at some things at that time.”

In this situation, the cardinal rule is simple and unbreakable — the buyers never go inside the house — not even to use the bathroom. If you go in with them, you are vulnerable. If they go in, even with you, they can scope out the valuables in your house. They might grab something and run or see things they want to come back and steal.

The bottom line
Thousands of these online transactions happen every day, and most of them go well. Still, it’s in your best interest to consider the potential danger and act accordingly.

There are bad people out there. You want to do everything you can to avoid them.

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