Matt Nielsen had never had an issue selling items on Craigslist — until his recent attempt to sell an old iPhone went wrong.
Now, the Fairfax County Public Schools teacher is warning neighbors and other residents to protect themselves from thieves who troll Craigslist for robbery opportunities.
Nielsen had sold a few items on Craigslist before, and decided it might be a good place to sell an old phone no longer in use.
Within an hour of his ad appearing on the site Jan. 21, Nielsen got a response from a buyer asking if the phone was still available: He could pay in cash and was in nearby Sterling, he said.
In a string of emails that followed, Nielsen and the buyer worked out the details — which carrier the phone had, when he’d be by to look at the phone, what color jacket he’d be wearing.
Nielsen met the buyer in front of his condo complex in Herndon. When they met, Nielsen said the buyer was on foot, but he figured his car was around the corner. He was shaking, but said it was because he was cold, even though it was nearly 50 degrees that day.
The buyer put his own SIM card in the phone. The chip usually carries the phone subscriber’s and carrier’s information, along with other data. When he found it worked he said he needed to run to his car to get the money, but instead of handing the phone back to Nielsen, he pushed him and took off on foot with the phone.
Nielsen chased him the block and a half to his car, which had been parked with the flashers on, he said. Nielsen made sure to stay a safe distance away from the vehicle in case the buyer, now a suspect, had a weapon.
With the suspect fumbling in the car with the door open Nielsen decided to stay back and began yelling out the tag number on the vehicle. He even yelled it to a pedestrian across the street, he said.
As the suspect began to pull away he threw the phone out the window, his SIM card still inside, Nielsen said. He called the Herndon Police Department right away, and by the time he got back inside his home, they were pulling up.
Nielsen signed over the phone to the police as evidence and provided them with the email exchange from Craigslist. A name was affiliated with the Craigslist messages, though the police thought it was likely fake, Nielsen said.
Later that night, Nielsen came home and Googled the name he’d been provided, and found a hit. Someone with the same name, listed as a resident of Sterling, turned up on Facebook. While his account was fairly secure, some of his friends had publicly posted photos of him.
Nielsen recognized the suspect from the photos he’d found and printed those and other information from the suspect’s Facebook account brought them to police for identification. With a positive identification, the information was sent to Loudoun County for an arrest warrant.
The suspect was arraigned on the Jan. 23 and his preliminary court date is in April. Nielsen said in his research of the local court systems he noticed the suspect has a progressive list of similar crimes, and he hopes he is dealt with appropriately.
Leading up to and during most of the transaction, Nielsen said he wasn’t concerned. His guard was down because he was in his own, safe neighborhood, he said.
The false sense of security is something shared by many craigslist theft victims, who have popped up across the region over the past year. In August, thieves targeted a number of Manassas teens selling their high-end shoes.
The area has also seen iPhone thefts; similar cases have been reported in Arlington.
Nielsen said he hopes his story can help others. From now on, he will make sure that similar transactions take place in public locations, rather than outside his home, he said.
Herndon Police Department’s Sr. Sgt. Steve Thompson said they have had an additional similar case, in which a Craigslist sale turned into a robbery. One was Nielsen’s, the other was for an iPad.
While police were able to make an arrest the night of Nielsen’s case, police are still following leads in the other case, Thompson said.
Thompson offered some tips to area residents who are selling on Craigslist or other websites:
• Always meet in a public place with high visibility.
• Let someone else know where you are going and the information on the person you are making the transaction with.
• If possible, have someone go with you to meet an online buyer or seller.
• Try to do some Internet research on the person you are communicating with before going to meet them, such as on Facebook or other social media. If anything makes you uneasy, cancel the transaction.
• Keep in mind you are meeting a stranger to conduct a transaction that could involve a large amount of cash.
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