SEA ISLE CITY — From the window of police Chief Tom McQuillen’s corner office, he can see two, side-by-side, bright green diagonally painted parking spots in the front of City Hall with a sign that says “Internet Exchange Zone” and “This area is under video surveillance.”
“As buying and selling on Facebook, Craigslist and mobile apps become more commonplace, we decided to create an exchange zone in town,” McQuillen said. “We want to protect the citizens of Sea Isle City the best we can, and this is another service we can offer to keep everyone safe.”
As neutral zones in the community that have been used for decades by residents for meetings that have a chance to turn tense, such as custody exchanges, departments have expanded to further meet the needs of their communities.
Buying and selling clothing, furniture and other goods online are gaining popularity, and so are instances of crime associated with meeting strangers at their homes or other unfamiliar locations. With the addition of Sea Isle City’s — which opened this spring — there are seven designated internet exchange zones outside of police departments in Atlantic and Cape May counties.
Beverly Groeber, 68, Mays Landing, has been buying and selling online for more than five years, using Wawa or Walmart to make exchanges.
Although some of her family members have their concerns about her meeting strangers, she said she’s never had a negative experience.
However, Groeber said exchange spots at police stations are a great idea.
“I would use it all the time, because you know what? If somebody’s going to buy something from me, and I tell them this is where I want to meet them, if they want to come, you know they aren’t going to do anything to you,” Groeber said.
And exchanges have turned deadly.
In March, NJ.com reported a 20-year-old Trenton man was found shot to death, his body dumped near a canal with his hands tied behind his back and tape around his face, after going to meet someone selling a used PlayStation 4.
Last month, a Chicago woman lured a pregnant 19-year-old to her home to sell her baby clothes, only to strangle her with a cord and cut the infant from her womb, according to the Associated Press.
It was an instance like those that prompted Detective Sgt. Bill Bradshaw to advocate for an exchange zone for the city. Bradshaw investigated an online transaction several years ago at a home where there was a dispute that ended in a physical altercation.
“I replied, ‘Let’s make it happen,’” McQuillen said. “So we did it.”
With the help of Lt. Bill Mammele, who put the plan in motion, as well as the city’s traffic and maintenance departments, who painted the parking spots and installed the sign, it all came together for about $40, McQuillen said.
“We’re constantly in and out,” McQuillen said. “At any moment, 3 a.m. even, there could be a patrol car coming out.”
Like Groeber, Noelle Ernst has been selling clothes, shoes, appliances and her original paintings on the Facebook Marketplace for five years, she said. She meets with a buyer about once a week.
“When I first started selling, I was skeptical about meeting people,” said Ernst, 27, of Egg Harbor Township. “But since I never ran into any problems, I felt more comfortable.”
She added that she chooses busy places like Wawa, CVS and Walmart and checks the buyer’s profile so she knows who they are and where they’re from.
“If we have mutual friends, I feel better about doing the exchange,” she said. “But the downside is that someone’s profile could be fake, so you never know who could be on the other end.”
Although she has never felt unsafe, having a police station as an option is a great idea, she said.
“You really never know who you could be going to meet up with, and if it was someone trying to pull a fast one on you, a police station would not be the place to do it,” Ernst said. “I know I would feel more comfortable knowing that the police are right there.”