Craigslist and the Fear of Crime

Note: I wanted to comment on this timely news story today, so my regular missing person segment on the Brianna Maitland case will appear tomorrow.

Several recent front-page stories of crime in the United States have had one aspect in common—-the mention of the popular classifieds website Craigslist.

 This weekend in Oregon, Korena Roberts was jailed and accused of murdering a pregnant woman named Heather Snively. Reportedly, Snively went to Roberts’ residence in response to a Craigslist advertisement for baby clothes.

Media reports also stated that Roberts is accused of “extracting” Snively’s baby from the womb, but both the mother and the baby boy were found dead by police—the baby initially and the mother when police returned and searched the location.

 On June 3, authorities arrested a North Carolina man and claimed that he had arranged through a Craigslist ad for an assailant to enter his residence and sexual assault his wife

 In April, Philip Markoff of Massachusetts was nicknamed the “Craigslist Killer” after being arrested and accused of placing ads on the website and then attacking the responding women.

 In 2007, Michael John Anderson was charged with the murder of Katherine Olson in Minnesota after she allegedly responded to a want ad on the website for a nanny that was supposed to have been placed by Anderson.

These are not the only tales of violent crime with alleged Craigslist connections, but I selected these four to offer that some incidents are alleged to originate in the adult services section of this site, while other ads thought to be linked to violence were said to be posted in areas having nothing to do with “erotic” services.

The case involving Markoff had newspapers editors like those at the Boston Globe questioning the practices of Craigslist:

…Either Web companies such as Craigslist need to take more responsibility for how their sites are used, or Americans need to get used to a lot more risk in the spaces where they gather.
The founder of Craigslist, Craig Newmark, responded to the April murders with a short statement that included this:

…craigslist gets around 50 million people using it per month; considering that, the crime rate we see is very low.
From the statement, it does not sound to me like management at Craigslist has thought much about what their “crime rate” is—otherwise management could have included much more specific information in the post.

For example, why not say something like “stats for the national average on violent crimes related to a social networking are in their infancy, but this company is a leader in protecting our customers. In the last five years, our community has been challenged with X number of violent crimes, which is still 20% below reported numbers for Website A and Website B based on user volume.”

With the two heinous crime stories from the last week including the website’s name, the company should be able to provide everyone with specific details on safety improvements to the site over the last three months (since Markoff's arrest). If not, expect immediate trouble for the firm from the public, media, and politicians (this will likely happen anyway, just not as immediate if the company proactively responds).

Nevertheless, statements by Craigslist executives similar to those issued after the Markoff arrest directed at general crime rates will not be enough in the coming months to combat the growing firestorm associated with the fear of crime and the web's most popular classified section.

Current users will certainly become more suspicious of activities on the site, but I think the major impact will be on potential users—“hey isn’t that the site that offenders use? Why do I want to go there?”

Criminal justice researchers have shown the fear of crime to be as or even more significant to the public as the actual crime rate—-fear determining how freely people live. Mr. Newmark and his colleagues are about to learn this differentiation firsthand.

After the weekend’s tragic event, I think that the management at Craigslist will be making wholesale changes in policies and business practices-—modifications that will be couched in a new emphasis on user protection.

Further, I would not be surprised to see lots of publicity as government officials, seeing an opportunity, become involved in the calls for enhanced protection as well.


fayezie said...

I think that craigslist did agree to get rid of their personals ad space in response to the guy in Massachusetts...

I think that even though the crimes committed are "heinous" as you described, there is only so much that craigslist or any other networking service can do... ultimately it has to come down to public awareness.... just like parking your car near a lighted area at night.

To think that the guilty woman in Oregon was advertising baby clothes is scary... that hits close to home because not only am I a mom who might advertise clothes for sale, I might want to buy them too.... makes ebay seem a lot safer, since most people use the postal service there. So, there you go, perhaps public safety policy should be to never meet someone at a private residence, and if you do, never go alone....

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

I am so glad you brought this up! An elderly friend of mine and I were thinking of advertising things for sale on Craigslist because it's free. But I didn't want people coming to my house to pick the stuff up, and most of the people who respond don't want to pay shipping.

Fayezie, I had similar issues when I joined FreeCycle where you give stuff away to each other. This is more monitored, but you never know whom you are inviting to your home.

There is always the chance that the person on the other end of the computer is not the person s/he claims to be. And we need to take those subtle threats or red flags seriously.

I say this as someone who had a flight of insanity (literally, for various medical reasons) and didn't believe the guy on the other end was serious about anything he said. I was raped and beat up.

Here's another thing: PLEASE monitor your kids' internet use and teach them internet safety.

Finally, know that if you report threats to the police, nothing will be done unless the perp writes, "I'm going to come to your house and kill your children" or something direct like that. Police need to read between the lines and take more action before anything happens, but they usually don't because of liability reasons. Still, there are ways the police can intervene without jeopardizing their jobs.

fayezie said...

when I used to sell real estate, we'd get warning announcements, and notices about perpetrators who would target realtors by requesting to see properties, thus putting the realtor in a vulnerable/isolated situation....

Katherine's last paragraph about police monitoring makes me think of the current issue surrounding the use of Twitter for emergency reporting...

mrs. fuzz said...

It's official. I will no longer use Craigslist, FreeCycle, or any other services. I will just give everything away for free by driving to a random neighborhood and dump everything out on the sidewalk and drive away.

Slamdunk said...

Having never used Craigslist or Freecycle this has been a learning experience for me as well. Thanks for the comments.

I would add to the discussion that Craigslist and the other sites will be challenged in civil court as to how they protect the user.

As Faye said, these companies can't do everything, but once multiple violent incidents occur on their "turf," they will be held accountable (to a certain extent and depending on the courtroom and judge).

Cindy Beck said...

"What a world, what a world!" (said the Wicked Witch of the East). We all know to be careful with someone we only know from the Internet, but some pepetrators are really good cons.

Don't see how Craigslist can be held accountable, though.

(Oh, and off the subject ... thanks for your past several comments at my blog.:)