Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Intersect

Think twice before answering that ad: 101 murders have been linked to Craigslist

By Caitlin Dewey

January 11, 2016 at 12:29 PM

A post that appeared on Craigslist on Jan. 2. (Craigslist via Imgur)

Nine days ago, a disturbing missive appeared on the Craigslist page for Tulsa, Okla.

"I was wanting to thank Tulsa for letting me have my first kill," the post begins. "It will not be my last thou (sic)."

The post has since disappeared from Craigslist, but not from the radars of concerned Oklahomans. A spokeswoman for the Tulsa Police Department said an investigation is ongoing. The homicide squad has found no open cases matching the murder described in the post, at least not within the past few months; they haven't ruled out the possibility that the post is a prank or a hoax.

But hoax or not, the post adds to a growing concern about Craigslist these days: that the site, far from just a good place to sell your stuff or meet a roommate, is also a platform for dangerous criminals to find their prey. In fact, according to the Advanced Interactive Media Group, an industry watchdog and analyst, Craigslist passed the 100-murder mark just three weeks ago, when a 22-year-old man from Gary, Ind., attempted to rob the middle-aged couple who'd arranged to buy his car.

[After Craigslist crimes, police across U.S. are opening safe havens for transactions]

"Their attitude is, 'We're safe, we have billions of safe transactions' — sure they do," said Peter Zollman, the founding principal of the AIM Group. "But every single day, there are also rapes, robberies and murders linked to Craigslist. And that is a serious issue."

Neither Craigslist nor its publicist responded to multiple interview requests, and the company has not commented publicly on safety issues since a 2010 Congressional hearing. Craigslist has long maintained that the vast majority of its transactions are legitimate and that it can't be held responsible for the small minority that aren't — which is true, legally speaking.

Still, some bad apples are active on Craigslist, and we don't tend to hear about them unless their crimes are particularly grim. Philip Markoff, the "Craigslist killer," was accused of robbing three women, and killing one of them, after meeting them in the Craigslist personals' section; he later committed suicide in prison. In 2013, 53-year-old Richard Beasley and a teenage sidekick were convicted of luring three men into the Ohio woods with bogus job listings, then killing them. Last April, a 30-year-old attorney was stabbed to death in the Donovan Hotel in downtown Washington. He was there to meet someone he'd contacted via Craigslist.

[Woman held in D.C. lawyer's slaying planned only to rob him]

If you scour the crime logs of places like Gary and Tulsa, more incidents emerge: transactions gone wrong, dates turned ugly, would-be roommates or landlords or handymen who aren't quite what they said they were. On Reddit, a popular horror forum called r/letsnotmeet frequently catalogs users' encounters with Craigslist sketchballs: "I really love Craigslist," one post begins, "… however I did run into two creeps who made me re-think meeting strangers alone to sell stuff."

"Traditionally, the majority of murders were committed by killers who knew their victims," said Jack Levin, a Northeastern University criminologist. "Thanks to the Internet generally and Craigslist in particular, stranger homicides have been on the increase."

Police arrive at the scene of a stabbing last March in Longmont, Colo. Dynel Lyne, 34, is accused of stabbing a pregnant woman in the stomach and removing her baby, while the expectant mother visited her home to buy baby clothes advertised on Craigslist. (AP Photo/The Daily Times Call/Matthew Jonas)

There are two things that make Craigslist a particularly attractive platform to would-be killers and other criminals, Levin said. First, Craigslist allows users to operate in total or near-total anonymity, meaning that they can both pretend to be just about anyone and can expect to meet a range of potential victims. (This characteristic, shared by newspaper classified ads, has also made those a theater for killers.) Second, unlike newspaper ads, Craigslist postings don't require leaving a phone number — or even a name.

There's one more thing that makes Craigslist appealing to criminals, Levin explains: Unlike Twitter or Plenty of Fish — other places where you can meet strangers anonymously — Craigslist is seen as having a "legitimate commercial purpose" that causes users to act more credulously. They're more willing to take risks, and tolerate eccentric or suspicious behavior, because there's money on the table.

[Pregnant Colorado woman stabbed, her baby 'removed,' after answering Craigslist ad]

None of that is Craigslist's fault, of course — it makes no guarantees about the safety or authenticity of posted ads. But Zollman and other critics say Craigslist has done "next to nothing" to encourage safe use or deter criminals. Among other things, the site doesn't provide safety information unless a user explicitly seeks it out, and the company has not endorsed any third-party efforts — like Zollman's own campaign to create "SafeTrade" spots at local police stations.

While it's unknown how many of Craigslist's 40 employees work in user-safety or moderation, it's safe to assume the site employs fewer moderators than its competitors. Gumtree, which is owned by eBay, employs a small army, Zollman said. And until recently, Backpage had a team of more than 100 scouring its ads for drug and human traffickers.

"I believe very strongly that they could save lives by putting a meaningful effort into safety and security measures," Zollman said. "One hundred and one people have been killed as a result of Craigslist. If efforts were made to improve the site, a lot of those wouldn't have happened."

What could Craigslist do? For starters, Zollman would like to see the site make its safety page more prominent, or even better, to automatically display safety information when a user begins a transaction on the site. He also wishes Craigslist would throw its considerable weight behind a safe exchange zone project, whether his or something like the ones being trialed in Virginia and Florida. Both advocate that Craigslist users conduct their transactions in police lobbies and parking lots, where they can be monitored.

Craigslist may also want to pick up the pace on responding to high-profile investigations. Even several days after Tulsa police asked Craigslist for the IP address of the user who posted the murder threat, they still hadn't received any information.


Caitlin Dewey is the food policy writer for Wonkblog. Subscribe to her daily newsletter: tinyletter.com/cdewey.

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