“Going shopping” has taken on a new meaning on Facebook’s quick-sale trading pages.
It’s code for a stolen-to-order rort.
Constable Jack Driver, of Waikato police’s social media team, said police had recently seen a new scam where users post a message stating they’re “going shopping, any requests?”
Then, using private message or comment, the “seller” compiles a shopping list of items from buyers and fulfils the order by committing a crime.
Waikato police are now looking to bring law and order to local pages, which have become an online platform for criminals, by working with administrators to weed out dodgy dealers.
Everything from stolen cigarettes and repackaged illegal meat to drug deals are being traded on both open and member-only Facebook pages.
Police say some criminals are using their children’s Facebook profiles to hide their identities, while others use pseudonyms and gang names.
On Monday night, police met with 10 hand-picked and vetted page administrators in a move to cut down on those who sell stolen goods.
Each week, Waikato police engage in 160 private messages about suspicious behaviour and posts via Facebook, Driver said.
“If we get this core group of people together, they may be able to identify and filter suspicious members, remove the post as soon as it’s online and report it to police.
“We can have legitimate administrators who care about their community and don’t want stolen goods being onsold.”
Detective Sergeant Paul Slater, of Waikato police’s Tactical Crime Unit, said that although police had a watchful eye on social media, it was impossible to monitor all local trading pages.
Unlike regulated New Zealand sites like Trade Me, compelling Facebook to release information was “problematic”, he said.
Police had limited power over regulating what was posted on the social media giant’s pages.
“Because it’s an American company, there is not a lot we can do legislation-wise in New Zealand to say what you can and can’t put on social media.
“What Facebook [staff] are very good at is monitoring child exploitation, but at a lower end, getting information from them is problematic and difficult.”
Facebook trading pages offer crooks access to thousands of buyers on a free and fast-sale marketplace, Slater said. Some pages like Buy and Sell Hamilton and Waikato have 76,000-plus members.
“While years ago, it used to be people phoning or texting their deals among a certain group of friends, now, with social media, you’re able to target a wider audience,” Slater said.
“On the whole, those Buy and Sell sites are used for a good service for the public. Unfortunately, there’s always going to be that criminal element that will look to sell stolen goods.
“And there may be people who are unaware that these things may be stolen.”
In 2016, Moanaroa Kidwell was convicted on a raft of charges after he used Facebook to arrange motorbike sales, luring buyers to remote locations only to rob them at gunpoint.
In one of the two hold-ups, Kidwell used an alias to advertise the bike and when the buyer turned up, he was forced to hand over $2000 to Kidwell while lying on the ground pleading for his life.
In another recent case, stolen tobacco, which was typically linked to robberies and ram-raids, was being advertised by the same user, with a real account and identification, on three trading pages.
For every tobacco sale post, police receive around 10 screen shots reporting it, Driver said.
“Nobody [legitimate] sells tobacco online and no one sells it for cheap,” Driver said.
“If it’s being sold online for cheap, it’s clearly illegal, and by purchasing it, you’re condoning that behaviour in our community.”
Cheap tools pilfered in burglaries and stolen, repackaged meat are regularly posted for sale on social media, Driver said.
“People need to be aware if you are going to do these transactions, it opens you up to risks.”
NetSafe chief executive Martin Cocker said Facebook set rules of use but did not have the mechanisms to enforce and regulate activity.
Responsibility is pushed on to the trader, the person who is purchasing or selling, who uses the marketplace under NZ laws.
“You can put some responsibility on people who administer those pages. Because you run that page you are somewhat responsible for what’s on it, but you have to be realistic about the level of responsibility.”
As Facebook was first and foremost a social media site it did not have the same safeguards as an e-commerce platform like Trade Me.
“It’s a much higher risk environment. If there’s close cooperation between law enforcement and people who run those marketplaces they will be a safer place to trade.”
Trade Me police and government liaison Matt Cleaver said users who suspect illegal activity can hit a ‘community watch’ button, which alerts Trade Me staff who investigate and where appropriate report to police, he said.
“We will check the validity and can remove the item from the platform and provide information to police to prosecute anyone trying to use the site illegally.
Last year Trade Me received 1559 requests for information from police, Cleaver said.
Slater didn’t expect police’s latest initiative would stamp out all criminal activity on social media pages, just reduce it.
“It will be a challenge, because a lot of these administrators have full-time roles and won’t be paid anything.
“It’s a chance for them to work with police and get people selling illegal items blocked from the site.”
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