An increasing number of police agencies in eastern Ontario and western Quebec are providing safer places for people to complete online transactions with strangers, usually under the watchful eye of 24/7 surveillance cameras.
On Thursday, Gatineau police became the latest to offer a designated area where residents buying and selling everything from iPhones to IROCs can finalize deals that began on Craiglist, Kijiji or similar platforms.
The blue-painted "neutral zones" are located in the parking lots of the Gatineau police stations on boulevard Gréber and boulevard de la Carrière, and are under constant video surveillance.
"These neutral zones are intended to prevent fraudulent transactions as well as physical attacks that may occur in the context of purchases or sales on popular online sites," Gatineau police said in a French-language news release.
The announcement came the same day Ottawa police charged a man with fraud, theft and possession of stolen property after he allegedly posted an online ad to sell a vehicle, only to flee with a prospective buyer's money after they met in person.
Investigators believe there could be other victims, Ottawa police said.
OPP launches 'Project Safe Trade'
On Tuesday, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) announced the launch of "Project Safe Trade" at the Upper Ottawa Valley detachment in Pembroke, Ont. The new "community safety zone" consists of two parking spots marked with the image of two hands shaking.
"Creating a 'community safety zone' is about moving online transactions away from secluded parking lots, personal residences or other areas and bringing them to a public place," Upper Ottawa Valley OPP said in a news release.
Officers won't proactively mediate or witness transactions, but will respond immediately "if the transaction becomes a criminal matter," according to OPP.
In Ottawa, residents can carry out transactions in the public lobby of any police station, according to the Ottawa Police Service, but "officers will not monitor or engage in the transaction itself."
There is no specific signage designating the lobbies as safe transaction zones, Ottawa police said.
Safe zones under surveillance
Police in other eastern Ontario cities including Kingston and Brockville established safe transaction zones outside their buildings several years ago.
The Cornwall Police Service has a designated "internet exchange zone" outside its Montreal Road location, and in 2019 produced this video about it.
Whether or not you choose to use one of the many safe exchange zones in the region, police say you should remember the following tips when meeting a buyer or seller:
Meet in a busy public place.
Conduct transactions during daylight hours.
Bring a trusted friend or family member as a witness.
Keep all records of the transaction including emails, texts and voicemails.
Beware of any last-minute changes in time or location.
If possible, check the seller's vendor rating or see if they've been flagged by other buyers.
Check the item you're buying to make sure it's as advertised.
And remember — if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.