OfferUp teams with local law enforcement to keep buyers and sellers safe

The internet is the new shopping mall for modern holiday shopping, but online exchanges done in person can go really wrong.

A new program from a local tech startup is going nationwide -- aimed at keeping you safe when you're buying things from strangers.

Last week was a perfect example of the kind of exchange the Bellevue tech company OfferUp wants you to avoid this holiday season: A seller lost hundreds of dollars in cash and the shoes he was trying to sell.

Since people started selling things to each other online in the 1990s, it's been a dark part of the dealing on the web.

Sgt. Glenn DeWitt has worked property crimes in Snohomish County for year, so he was delighted when OfferUp wanted to establish their first community meet up spot at his police station.

"People were being robbed, stolen from, and that type of thing. It became quite dangerous actually, said DeWitt. "We want the community to be safe. Part of our motto is 'community first.'"

Random parking lots are often places people try to finish up online transactions in the real world. But often they're done with cash -- and sometimes a lot of it. But law enforcement says places like these are not the best spots to do these transactions because you put yourself and your cash at risk.

But community meet ups now happen at thousands of police stations across the country -- places with good lighting, surveillance cameras and officers only steps away. It's one of a number of improvements OfferUp is giving buyers and sellers on their platform:

"It's part of our DNA, it's a huge part of what our founders wanted to make a part of offer up," said Natalie Angelillo with OfferUp. "Not just that we're the largest mobile marketplace but that we're also the safest option for people out in the world."

Now things like reviews of past transactions and connecting accounts to consumer Facebook profiles can give buyers and sellers a better idea of who they're really dealing with:

Verification badges: Users now receive badges on their profile when they verify their phone number and email address and connect their Facebook account. These features build on OfferUp’s TruYou member program, which gives users the opportunity to receive a badge when they confirm their phone number and securely provide an image of an ID and a selfie in the app.

Positive review attributes: In addition to listing the number of reviews and showing a one through five star rating, OfferUp shows attributes such as “timely”, “friendly”, “item as described” and “reliable” that have been rated by other users.

Trusted connections: OfferUp profiles that are integrated with Facebook now allow users to find mutual connections with other buyers and sellers, giving users increased confidence in transacting with that individual.

Personalized background image: Users can add a banner photo to enhance their profile, allowing people to get a clearer sense of what that user likes, where they’re from and/or what they sell.

And if there are red flags, you have options nearby to pick the safest spot possible to meet.

"We're working so hard to give them these options -- to give them the information to make decisions about where to meet or who to meet with," said Angelillo.

The people at OfferUp say the peace of mind of a secure transaction means a truly free marketplace. And for law enforcement, while there's no way to tell how many crimes they're preventing, they do save law enforcement time and resources.

"If we're stopping something before it happens that's one less call or crime that we have to investigate," said DeWitt. "And then our people can be available to do other things."

And DeWitt says if someone won't meet at a police station to buy or sell their stuff, go back to the oldest consumer rule in the books: buyer beware.

How to find a community meetup spot