If you’re thinking of using an app to exchange belongings, watch out – several Charlotte residents have recently been robbed at gunpoint trying to do just that.
One case ended tragically. On June 18, a college baseball player named Zachary Finch was killed while trying to buy a phone in west Charlotte. Two 15-year-olds were later arrested and charged with murder.
Finch didn’t know the person he was meeting, police said. He had connected with them through a mobile app called letgo, which works a bit like a next-generation Craigslist.
The letgo app has been involved in at least two other Charlotte robberies in the past two months. In each of those cases, the victim was trying to sell a phone and made plans to meet with a prospective buyer in person, search warrants said. Instead of exchanging the phone for money as planned, the sellers were threatened and robbed.
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A fourth victim was robbed while trying to sell an iPhone 7 on a similar app called OfferUp, a search warrant said.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police spokesman Rob Tufano said CMPD is still investigating the cases. Police have found no connection between the robberies so far, he said.
Finch’s murder and the other three robberies all happened on small, quiet streets inside residential communities, according to court documents.
Choosing busy surroundings is one way police and the companies behind these apps say users can keep themselves safe.
Coffee shops and the parking lots of police stations are examples of good places to meet up, though CMPD announced Friday that it will soon have dedicated “safe exchange areas.” The locations of these new areas aren’t available yet.
OfferUp and letgo allow users to provide extra proof of their identities through social media profiles or even a driver’s license – but those programs are optional.
Trust and security are high priorities for the apps, each company said in statements Tuesday. The companies encourage users to report suspicious activity and meet up in safe areas. Both apps discourage shipping items. The apps are meant to be used locally, and shipping can lead to fraud, the companies’ websites say.
Tufano said CMPD urges “extreme caution” if people choose to use these apps to conduct transactions with strangers.
After Finch died, CMPD Sgt. Susan Manassah urged people buying and selling items online to stay aware of their surroundings.
Tell someone you trust that you’re going out to meet a stranger, she said, and be wary of particularly exciting offers.
“If it’s too good to be true, then it’s not real,” she said.
Manassah said app users shouldn’t be afraid to cancel a transaction if they’re uneasy.
“It should be in a place where you both feel comfortable. And if the one person doesn’t want to meet you there, then end it,” she said.
Charlotte had a similar string of armed robberies involving online sales in August 2014. In those cases, the victim and suspect encountered each other through Craigslist.
The advice from police in 2014 sounds familiar – bring a friend, avoid side streets, cancel the deal if the other person’s profile disappears from the site.
Jane Wester: 704-358-5128, @janewester