Champaign cop's idea for 'safe zone' for web-sale exchanges now a reality

Champaign cop's idea for 'safe zone' for web-sale exchanges now a reality

CHAMPAIGN — After seeing people ripped off a few times during the exchange of property from online sales, Champaign police Officer Brian Ahsell thought there had to be a better way.

So the 12-year member of the department did his homework and came up with what he hopes will be a crime-free way for online buyers and sellers to do business: a "safe zone" on the north side of the police department at 82 E. University Ave.

"I was working campus district at the time and I had first-hand knowledge this type of thing was a problem," Ahsell said of the online sales that would sometimes go awry when people met at pre-arranged locations.

"Either a flat-out robbery and their merchandise and sometimes money was taken ... or the other common thing I noticed was that the exchange would happen, but an online payment source would be used and that currency (payment) would be canceled after the transfer (of merchandise) was made, so the victim would be without their item and their payment."

Ahsell enlisted the aid of the folks at METCAD to document enough instances of the scams so he could persuade his bosses that it was indeed a problem that warranted a solution.

"I wrote a proposal and presented it to Deputy Chief (Joe) Gallo. I've never done anything like that before," said Ahsell, a patrol officer.

He admits the idea for a safe space for swaps outside the police station was not original. He read about other cities doing the same on an online law-enforcement blog. But it was his idea to have a safe zone outside the station and admits to being proud of shepherding it to fruition.

The result of Ahsell's proposal are two well-lit parking spots marked by signs on the north end of the police station that have surveillance cameras trained on them 24 hours a day.

Ahsell said if a buyer or seller is nervous about meeting at the police station, "I'd be worried about the legitimacy" of the deal.

And if folks really don't want to take advantage of the police-station area, he urges them to go to a public area that is well lit and to take someone along.

"Another set of eyes is always good to have," he said.

Although Ahsell said he proposed the idea a year ago and it's only now in action, his timing was fortuitous.

There have long been cameras on the outside of the police station, but Ahsell said the city council had recently approved payment for a replacement system.

"It was perfect timing. I asked if we can add one more camera to watch these spots," he said.

"This isn't world-changing," he said of his initiative, "but it's a great service we can provide and another thing to help the community feel safe when they go about their day to day routine."

Tips for web-sale exchanges

— Insist on meeting in a public area.

— If someone is not willing to meet at the police department, it's probably not a legitimate deal.

— Only do business with local buyers and sellers.

— Let someone know the details and don't go alone.

— Don't go into someone else's house, nor allow them into yours.

— Only use cash or money orders.

— Trust your instincts. If it sounds like a scam, it probably is. If you feel uncomfortable, leave.

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