CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - More and more people are doing it - buying and selling items on social media then meeting strangers in person to complete the transaction.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police say the meetings can be dangerous. Investigators say so far this year, at least 40 people have been attacked - thefts, robberies, violent crimes - when they showed up to exchange money for the items.
"Most always, cash transactions," Sgt Brian Scharf said. "So there's always cash there. There're often – almost always done by strangers so you don't know this person. You spoke to them through social media website."
Now, police are teaming up with QuikTrips to establish a safe exchange program.
"To offer a public meeting to safely exchange previously agreed upon items through social media websites," Sgt. Scharf said. "Our effort is to reduce thefts, robberies and violent crimes that are sometimes associated with these social media websites."
Police say 14 QuikTrips around the city will have safe exchange zones and the QT's will designate 2 parking spots, and paint them red with signage so people will know where to go.
Police say the QTs are busy, public, and will have 24-hour video surveillance the area. Officers patrolling the area near where the safe exchange is located will drive by and do zone checks.
The department says each patrol division will have one safe exchange zone.
"This isn't a be all, end all. Nothing is a 100% safe," said CMPD spokesperson Rob Tufano. "This is just another layer of protection we're offering our community. I think it would be wise for our community members to take advantage of this."
Police say they expect the program to be up and running next week.
"And I just hope that people make good choices," said Tara Finch, whose son Zachary was killed when he went to complete an online deal. "Zach tried to do everything right but the reality is there are people who out there who prey upon trusting innocent people so just be careful."
A college baseball player, Zach Finch was 21 years old when he was shot to death in June. Police say he went to meet someone he met on an App, trying to buy an upgraded cell phone. Investigators arrested three teens, including two juveniles.
"He was robbed of so much more than money that day. He was robbed of being engaged in December, of graduating from college in May and having the babies that he wanted to have," Tara Finch said. "They robbed more than one life. They robbed all our lives. We're broken. Our family is broken. Our community is broken. My community back home in Florida where we're from is broken."
Tara Finch is hoping the safe exchange program will make a difference.
"Nothing can bring him back. He would want something positive to come out of this. It's not positive for me because he will never come home but it's positive for him," Tara Finch said. "Zach was always about helping people so if this safe exchange zone helps other people, Zach will be smiling down on us I'm sure. But be careful - even in a zone like that – there are evil, vile people in this world and they don't care."
Sgt Scharf says people meeting strangers to complete online deals should take steps to ensure their safety:
- Make sure the transaction is daytime. Daytime is always better. A public location. A crowded location. Know the location.
- Arrive early. Make sure there is more than one way in and out.
- If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. If it feels wrong, it probably is wrong.
- Never go alone.
- Always take your phone with you - your personal phone. If something happens, please just cooperate.
- If you have to go alone, always let somebody know when where, why, and how - and call the police immediately if something does happen to you.