TORONTO — About a year ago, police in Kingston, Ont., quietly began offering a space for residents who buy and sell through online classified ads.
Although it doesn't look like much — just a designated area in the visitor parking lot at police headquarters — the safe zone is used multiple times a week as a real-life meet up point for transactions arranged on the Internet.
Kingston police Const. Steve Koopman says the service is planning on putting up a sign in the next month or so to officially launch the zone.
"(It's) a space for people to feel comfortable to have that transaction with a stranger,'' he said on Thursday.
Kingston Police HQ. (Photo: Facebook)
The idea behind the safe zone was not based on any specific incident, but was triggered after the police began seeing an increase in fraud cases involving online purchases.
"We don't recommend people send money online because we see many instances of fraud where the suspect gets the money and the victim never gets their product,'' said Koopman.
"It's a catch-22, you don't want to lose your money online but then some people are nervous about meeting a stranger in real life. So we say, 'Come to our station.' You know there are police officers literally a few feet from you and that there is full video surveillance monitoring 24/7.''
"(It's) a space for people to feel comfortable to have that transaction with a stranger."
Koopman said there hasn't been any reported issues among buyers or sellers using the safe zone, even though residents can report to nearby officers if a criminal offence such as fraud or theft occurs during a transaction.
Most transactions involve smaller items like electronics, DVDs and CDs. He noted that he hasn't seen anyone come by with large items like dressers or toilets, but those types of transactions are also welcome in the space.
Police forces across the country have been setting up safe zones in their communities over the past year, as the popularity of buying and selling through online classified and social media sites like Kijiji, Facebook and Craigslist continue to grow.
A number of official and unofficial safe zones have been reported in a number of jurisdictions in Alberta and Ontario.
A spokesman for Kijiji said the company has been in talks with several police departments about how to increase safety for its site users. It's currently working on promoting police-sanctioned safe zones on its website soon.
"At the end of the day, people need to bear in mind that it's always safer to meet where it's busy, well-lit, with cameras or lots of people,'' said Shawn McIntyre, communications manager at Kijiji.
In Vancouver, police say it doesn't have a designated safe zone but does encourage people to meet others in public places, including police stations, rather than their home.
"At the end of the day, people need to bear in mind that it's always safer to meet where it's busy, well-lit, with cameras or lots of people."
"Please don't bring your armoires and couches here but you're more than welcome to come to the police station and do your transaction outside our front doors, in our lobby, as long as it doesn't interfere with the usual business that goes on here,'' said spokesman Const. Brian Montague.
"If you suggest the police station as your public place to meet, it may actually discourage individuals who are on Craigslist for a criminal purposes from even showing up,'' he added.
Safety issues connected with doing business online came under scrutiny following the 2013 murder of a Hamilton man.
Tim Bosma vanished after leaving with two men who came to his home to test drive a truck he advertised for sale online. His body was found burned beyond recognition in an animal incinerator more than a week later. In June, a jury found two men guilty of first-degree murder in his death.
Follow @LindaNguyenTO on Twitter.