Portland Police Boost Craigslist 'Stings' For Stolen Goods

Portland police are cracking down on thieves selling on the popular website.

ByABC News
October 26, 2011, 10:20 AM

Oct. 26, 2011— -- Detectives at the Portland, Ore., police department's Burglary Taskforce Unit get a lot of calls like this one:

"My motorcycle has been stolen; I just found it on Craigslist! If you can give me a call back to tell me how to go about this so I can recover my bike I'd love it."

That call came from Portland resident Sasha Woodruff, who was certain her 2006 White Ninja motorcycle was posted for sale online. She even had an idea who took it.

Portland police prepared to be the first buyers on the scene.

Victims of theft looking to recover their property may not have to look far. It's a growing trend that people around the country are finding their stolen goods on the popular website, Craigslist.com, sometimes being sold by the original thief. In the last six months alone, Portland police have helped more than 100 victims get their stuff back from Craigslist -- enough to fill a small pawn shop of their own.

It works like this: Detectives conduct sting operations by contacting suspicious sellers directly, either by sending text messages from disposable, so-called "burner phones," or sending emails from phony email accounts.

"I'm leaving a few spelling errors in there. Makes it a little authentic," said officer Brian Hughes

Police then attempt to set up a meeting to "buy back" the stolen goods. Sellers are surprised when their "buyer" is actually an undercover cop.

"It's anonymous on the selling end and it's anonymous on the buying end so you never know who it is you are going to be selling your bike to," Hughes said.

Adorning an entire wall of their office is a kind of "Craigslist Wall of Fame," which includes items the unit has recovered in recent sting operations: computers, guitars, custom-made car engines, GPS devices, a lot of bikes, even baby strollers.

Police say they are seeing fewer stolen goods in local pawn shops these days because the shops are more regulated, asking sellers for more information, names and addresses. Craigslist, on the other hand, is an open marketplace -- a faceless free-for-all and the "ultimate pawn shop," police say.

"It is the ultimate way to get rid of property, legitimately and illegitimately," said detective Dave Anderson.

Anderson and detective Dan Slauson, who head up the burglary taskforce, said their unit grew out of overwhelming demand. Robbery or mugging victims kept calling the police station, saying they were finding their own stolen items being re-sold on Craigslist and they wanted help.

Slauson said they go after the stolen items on two fronts: "You have to attack the criminals and you have to attack where they buy and sell the property," he said. "Because if they don't have an outlet to sell it, they don't have a way of making money and that may discourage crime from occurring originally."

Ina statement to ABC News, William C. Powell, the director of law enforcement relations for Craigslist.com, praised the work of the Portland police:

"It's heartening to hear of owners reunited with their belongings by law enforcement armed with digital evidence we provide. Misusing Craigslist to sell stolen items is a great way to get yourself arrested and prosecuted, since a detailed electronic trail is invariably left behind."

But this technology has given rise to another new trend -- "citizen detectives," people who find their treasured items on Craigslist and try to recover it without calling the police. Anderson cautioned against doing that.

"Don't retrieve your stolen item on your own without the police being involved because the scenario plays out over and over and nothing good can happen if you're contacting the original criminal and you're someplace you can get in over your head and it could be really dangerous," he said.

CLICK HERE to read tips from the Portland police on what to do if you see your stolen stuff on Craigslist.