Patterico's Pontifications


Reining In the Internet (Updated)

Filed under: Blogging Matters — DRJ @ 10:41 am

[Guest post by DRJ]

I love the internet and even though I don’t browse any controversial websites, I don’t mind that they exist. But articles like this from Oregon make me think twice about whether we need to rein in the internet:

“A pair of hoax ads on Craigslist cost an Oregon man much of what he owned.

The ads popped up Saturday afternoon, saying the owner of a Jacksonville home was forced to leave the area suddenly and his belongings, including a horse, were free for the taking, said Jackson County sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Colin Fagan.

But Robert Salisbury had no plans to leave. The independent contractor was at Emigrant Lake when he got a call from a woman who had stopped by his house to claim his horse.

On his way home he stopped a truck loaded down with his work ladders, lawn mower and weed eater.

“I informed them I was the owner, but they refused to give the stuff back,” Salisbury said. “They showed me the Craigslist printout and told me they had the right to do what they did.”

Salisbury lost most of his property to numerous people, although he was able to take down the license plates of some. Apparently most of the people who took items were convinced they had the right to take the items because of the notices they saw on Craigslist.

Fortunately for Salisbury, the woman who wanted the horse had the sense to check to see if the notice was valid or he might not have had any information about what happened. In addition, authorities are working to track down who placed the Craigslist notices.

It’s an interesting dilemma. The law can deal with property issues like theft and conversion, and the fake notice may be actionable as criminal or civil fraud. However, I don’t think people will be happy with an unregulated internet if stories like this become more common.

UPDATE 4/1/2008: The perpetrators have apparently been caught. See NK’s comment.


53 Responses to “Reining In the Internet (Updated)”

  1. Wow. I can absolutely see people blaming the internet for this, but really, it’s just the fault of morons and retards.

    Scott Jacobs (d3a6ec)

  2. When they find the “person” who’s responsible for this, there’s an Old-West saying that seems appropriate:

    Get a whip, cause hangin’s too good for him.

    Another Drew (f9dd2c)

  3. One way to address this problem is to require the directory owner in this case Craig’s list, AKA e-bay to vet the lister.

    Not a Yank (a47dbe)

  4. It is fraud, pure and simple. Someone was representing themselves as something they were not. Since the amount of material lost is probably in excess of felony amounts, whomever it was is no welcome to the big time lawbreaking. Hopefully, Craigslist will have the logs

    MunDane (d3328f)

  5. As long as they didn’t take his silenced handguns, latex gloves, and thirst for revenge, he should be fine.

    Leviticus (3c2c59)

  6. What’s to regulate here?

    stef (de7003)

  7. “i” before “e” except after ….

    LarrySheldon (291b69)

  8. …is wrong in this case. I see why people don’t like English.

    Anyway, I don’t look to the left coast for wisdom.

    LarrySheldon (291b69)

  9. DRJ, uh huh, absolutely, this is eactly how the government gets started.

    james conrad (7cd809)

  10. “Anyway, I don’t look to the left coast for wisdom.”

    Bush beat Kerry 55 to 43 in Jackson County Oregon. Wisdom.

    stef (688568)

  11. Everyone who got caught stealing from him should be jointly and severally liable for his losses. Problem solved.

    Daryl Herbert (4ecd4c)

  12. (I should have noted that I was speaking normatively, i.e. that I was proposing a solution, not describing the current state of the law)

    Daryl Herbert (4ecd4c)

  13. Stef and others,

    First, I don’t want the internet regulated and I’m content to leave things as they are, where internet offenders can be tracked down through the ISPs in court proceedings. Thus, I think the law can handle this, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about the subject.

    Second, it seems to me that if we were going to introduce regulations, the most logical and least restrictive approach would be to require the listing website to do more vetting as Not A Yank mentioned above. It should be enough that people have to provide the information required to place a classified ad in the newspaper.

    Of course, that’s easy to avoid: Anyone could start a blog or website and put a notice up and it would be impossible to police in advance. On the other hand, a new website or blog wouldn’t get the traffic that sites like Craigslist get.

    My gut feeling is that the more traffic a website gets, the more likely it will have a registration procedure that provides limited information about the comment’s source. At this point, I don’t know if it should be required by regulations or a common sense requirement left up to each website. I prefer the latter but, at some point, I expect to see the former.

    Chilling, isn’t it?

    DRJ (a431ca)

  14. hard cases make bad law. we don’t need to “rein in the internet” over this. the craigslister and the people who responded are common thieves, and should be treated as such. the thief in the story who was caught with the ladders, lawnmower, etc. and refused to give them back was lucky. i have the right of hot pursuit to recover property stolen from me, and the right to effect citizen’s arrests, and when i point my little metal friend at a thief, i am fairly confident that my orders will be obeyed.

    assistant devil's advocate (216707)

  15. anyone could have pulled the same hoax with an ad in their local newspaper classifieds, or with flyers on local telephone poles around town, or with a fake “open house sale” sign on the front lawn. what difference does it make that it happened via craig’s list? at least the internet leaves some trails that can be traced to hopefully find the poster.

    rmk (b39472)

  16. RMK,

    Good point, but it seems to me that Salisbury or a friend/neighbor would be more likely to see this in a local newspaper or on signs/flyers and had a better opportunity to prevent it. A local newspaper might have checked further before publishing an unusual notice like this. In addition, with fake flyers and signs, there is a better ability to track down the source using good old-fashioned police work.

    Craigslist really had no way of knowing if this was legitimate or not, and it’s possible no person at Craigslist saw the notice until there was an inquiry.

    DRJ (a431ca)

  17. “Second, it seems to me that if we were going to introduce regulations, the most logical and least restrictive approach would be to require the listing website to do more vetting as Not A Yank mentioned above. It should be enough that people have to provide the information required to place a classified ad in the newspaper.”

    So, no more anonymous speech?

    “Chilling, isn’t it?”

    I was just curious to see where you were going. Early in the internet’s history was passed section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It made sites like this one and craigslist — as well as service providers — generally immune from liability for information provided by another person.

    I was wondering if that is what you were contemplating on rethinking. But it seems it’s a much more fundamental First Amendment interest that you’re considering taking on.

    stef (cded7b)

  18. ADA,

    You may be right but let me throw this out: If you are the victim of identity theft, local, state and federal agencies do little or nothing to help you. That’s not a problem if you haven’t been a victim. If you are a victim, it’s a nightmare that is solely your problem to unravel.

    Salisbury’s case is getting attention because it’s novel. Imagine if this happens 10-20 times a week in an average size community, or even more in large communities. How helpful will law enforcement be if this is routine and tracking it down requires assistance from entities that are outside the control of local law enforcement?

    I submit it will be treated just like identity theft, e.g., It’s your problem, buddy. If that happens, we’ll see a backlash.

    DRJ (a431ca)

  19. DRJ

    In reference to rmk’s comment; I recall at least one incident when I was a teen where someone passed out fake “open party” fliers to some poor kid’s house (her parents were out of town and she was allowed to have a couple of friends over … best guess that someone got their nose out of joint because she refused to have a party and this was their “get even” stunt) … over 200 showed, some forcing their way into the house and trashing it, not listening to her pleas to leave – they even ripped out the phone (back in the day of hardwired, rotary phones). She finally fled down the block to get someone to call the police.

    Blaming the “internet” for the craigslist thing is like blaming the “mimeograph” machine that cranked out the fliers in the case I cite.

    Darleen (187edc)

  20. If you are the victim of identity theft, local, state and federal agencies do little or nothing to help you

    I guess it depends where you are at. We have a special unit in our DA office that handles all ID theft cases, plus our local police agencies have designated and trained detectives to handle ID cases. ID theft is taken very seriously.

    Darleen (187edc)

  21. Assuming that police actually catch some of the thieves, I don’t think that “I saw an ad on Craig’s List” will negate any element of the larceny here.

    Mistake of fact, at least in many jurisdictions, must be reasonable to negate an element of a crime. Would a reasonable person believe an ad that says “anybody is free to take anything this person owns whether they are home or not”, or even “anybody is free to take anything I own even if I’m not home”?

    I just don’t think so.

    Mistake of fact must also be honest. Was the mistake of fact also honest? I don’t think so either. So I don’t think it would be difficult to overcome the mistake of fact defense if it were raised at trial.

    Occasional Reader (16f258)

  22. New technology presents new problems for the law. We didn’t outlaw or restrict copiers or similar machines because they didn’t present an undue threat but we have restricted the availability of technology like radar guns and cell phone blocking devices. Whether we like it or not, this will be an issue someday.

    DRJ (a431ca)

  23. Darleen,

    It probably does depend on where you live but how many cases of identity theft are filed compared to the estimated total number of identity theft cases in your jurisdiction? And how many cases are resolved or prosecuted out of that amount? I suspect it’s a fraction.

    DRJ (a431ca)

  24. I’m surprised nobody mentioned Joe Horn yet.

    nk (34c5da)

  25. We were waiting for you.

    Another Drew (f9dd2c)

  26. In the short term, I suspect that the second most annoyed person in Oregon right now is Mr. Salisbury’s homeowner’s insurance agent.

    M. Scott Eiland (b66190)

  27. I responded to you 12:35 comment but didn’t see it.

    [I found it. It’s now #17. There were comments from you and others in the filter. Sorry. — DRJ]

    stef (c089c0)

  28. Stef #17,

    I’m not proposing any specific policy or solution. I’m just discussing the issues.

    DRJ (a431ca)

  29. Does he have an, or soon to be, ex-wife?

    nk (34c5da)

  30. … or ex-girlfriend, disgruntled customer, irritable co-employee, or a neighborhood teenage prankster?

    DRJ (a431ca)

  31. DRJ – Speaking from my personal experience, identity theft is rarely prosecuted. I suspect, at the local level, they really have no idea where to begin investigating it. FTC has a site for complaints, but they do not seem to be bothered unless the numbers get big, or the conduct is egregious. It only cost me $4800, which I eventually recovered with my bank’s help, who seems to have been the only party actually interested in investigating it.

    JD (25bb93)

  32. Even a newspaper is not fool-proof as evidenced by a local D.A. having his home address and private telephone phone number printed in a garage sale ad by a gangbanger working in the classifieds dept. of the newspaper. The ad placer is now serving time.

    (its strikes me as absurd that honest people would actually feel comfortable believing and acting upon such an ad, let alone loading up their cars with items not belonging to them. The word opportunists.)

    Dana (fba430)

  33. oops, meant to say, ‘The word opportunists comes to mind.’

    Dana (fba430)

  34. how many cases of identity theft are filed compared to the estimated total number of identity theft cases in your jurisdiction?

    Excuse me, but DRJ, how do we prosecute ID theft if people don’t go to the police and file a report? Are you trying to say ID theft is kinda the new “rape” thing, where all these untold, unknown, number of cases are happening and the victims forget to go to the police?

    A lot of time the problems with solving the consequences of ID theft are NOT the problems of law enforcement, but the uncooperative attitude of credit reporting agencies and credit card agencies.

    Darleen (187edc)

  35. The problem isn’t “the internet”, or even Craigslist. It’s the toxic combination of stupidity, willful ignorance, and a “larceny is ok if you get away with it” mindset that is all too common in that area. It’s another piece of collateral damage of the WOD, because the large “growing” contingent (and the even larger set of their customers) have produced this sort of scofflaw mentality.

    bud (46e4bf)

  36. or with a fake “open house sale” sign on the front lawn.

    How many open houses have you been to where you’re allowed to take items from the property????

    Steverino (459829)

  37. Of course this is reprehensible (says the fellow who’s long forgotten the stuff he did in high school) but I think that proving intent for criminal proceedings against the looters will be difficult.

    Bet you could narrow down who posted the announcement by looking at who got away with the best stuff, but that might be my cynicism showing.

    Uncle Pinky (5ba4c8)

  38. “looters” is such a harsh word. i propose that we call them “entrepreneurial salvage consultants”.

    unreasonable mistake of fact is no defense to a burglary/possession of stolen property charge. the onus is on the entrepreneurial salvage consultant to verify that the ad is legit.

    assistant devil's advocate (bf7863)

  39. Darleen,

    I wasn’t trying to impugn your office’s effort to combat identity theft. My point was that not all identity theft is reported, and I still believe that even with reported ID theft, the resolution and successful prosecution rates are probably small.

    In addition, the problems with ID theft do not all arise because people don’t try to report it. In many jurisdictions, it is not something local officials have developed a method to handle nor is it something they particularly want to handle.

    For instance, let’s say someone in Pennsylvania steals bank account information from someone in Montana and uses it to go on a spending spree at numerous Walmarts, Targets, etc., in Indiana, Kentucky and Georgia. The total amount of the theft is $5,000 but each transaction was under $500. The Montana resident finds out about it when s/he is contacted by Tele-Check or a similar organization to collect on NSF checks returned by the merchants.

    Where does our poor Montana resident file a police complaint? I know s/he can file with the FTC as JD mentioned, but the local Montana police aren’t going to do much about thefts outside its jurisdiction, and it’s difficult to get cooperation from the various merchants or the police departments in each location.

    Even if everyone wants to help, the multi-jurisdictional aspects and the small amounts involved in each transaction make it hard to get anyone to act, especially when (as you say) the merchants and credit agencies want to chalk it up to the cost of doing business. Obviously, though, that cost of doing business gets passed on to me and you.

    Again, I’m sorry I offended you but I think you are taking offense where none was intended and, more importantly, in an area where there really is a problem.

    DRJ (a431ca)

  40. The other issue is that with the new “in” thing being “identity theft”, a lot of old-fashioned ordinary forgery is now called “identity theft”.

    Frankly, I like to use a narrower definition for identity theft myself.

    SPQR (26be8b)

  41. SPQR,

    If you were referring to my example, I’m familiar with cases where ID thieves create fake driver’s licenses with information taken from real persons. They also use checks on bank accounts at a real bank, but the checks need not be the real bank accounts of the persons named in the driver’s licenses. So I consider that identity theft more than forgery.

    DRJ (a431ca)

  42. Wasn’t really addressing your example, DRJ, my apologies. Just a general observation that in my experience, everything has become “identity theft”.

    SPQR (26be8b)

  43. Just write yourself an ad that says you get to take all your stuff back plus some of theirs…

    SteveG (f87fc9)

  44. DRJ

    I’m not offended, just a little surprised by an attitude that assumes to know what is going on when you haven’t really looked into it.

    Yes, id theft is a huge problem. I tell family, friends, strangers, whatever all the minimal strategies they can do to minimize their exposure. And I always always stress that they need to report it to the police. The more info we have on how these people operate, the better at busting them or heading them off.

    But people should know, too, if they are trying to clear their accounts they are going to have to have a police report to even get the ball rolling with credit agencies. So here we are again. Crime pays when victims don’t report.

    Darleen (187edc)

  45. Darleen,

    I don’t have any experience with prosecuting identity theft but I do have recent personal experience as a victim. In my case, I contacted three medium- to large-sized police departments in two states and each one refused to take my report. Each claimed they weren’t the right jurisdiction to take the report, and the one that finally did file a report only did so because I was extremely persistent. Most people would not be so persistent, would be intimidated, or would believe the police department when they were told they could not file a report.

    In addition, I also researched and located my county and state resources for identity theft victims. I was told that very few claims are filed at those levels and I don’t doubt it. The programs are hard to track down. In addition, the agencies have a low interest in pursuing identity theft because they have more important crimes to pursue — and I understand that. It’s appropriate that property crimes are not as high priority as crimes against the person.

    I honestly can’t imagine getting my case to a DA’s office. The only conceivable way that might happen is if my jurisdiction had an office dedicated to that offense, as it seems your office has. Good for you, but based on my experience it seems like they are few and far between.

    DRJ (a431ca)

  46. I agree, even they should give rewards to those who catch these fraudulent people.

    Karen (4944fd)

  47. very interesting, thanks for this post…

    Karen (4944fd)

  48. #29 and 30….


    Once caught, leave a mark so they will be reminded of how really stupid they really are FOREVER!

    If they repeat such, call ada for the final solution.

    TC (1cf350)

  49. This crime and identity theft aren’t the same thing.

    ID theft is caused by a mismatch of incentive – government and companies keep too much sensitive data on people, and have no good reason to keep it secure. Perversely, SSNs are treated as unique identifiers at the same time that they’re nearly trivially easy to find and reuse, for instance.

    This crime, on the other hand, is a classic social engineering attack. Not really any different than ordering pizzas and magazines for someone you dislike, other than in magnitude. And while casual anti-anonymity efforts could get to the point where the bulk of these sorts of things could be traced, without really draconian efforts (think biometrics for net access), there is no practical way to stop this sort of thing systematically without outright banning Craig’s list (and blogs, for that matter).

    This is the waterbed principal – press down here, it pops up there. If you mandate some China style registration for public speech, imagine what all of those spam bots infecting PCs will become. *That’s* the point that this sort of crime will become much more akin to identity theft, and you’ll have two victims instead of one.

    fishbane (ae1247)

  50. unreasonable mistake of fact is no defense to a burglary/possession of stolen property charge.

    You know, ada, I rarely agree with you; but I gotta admit you’re bang on target with this.

    I’ve got no idea how the Oregonian statutes are written, but I was questioning whether the prosecutors will think they have winnable cases should the trial go to jury.

    “entrepreneurial salvage consultants”

    I am so getting business cards with that. Many thanks.

    Uncle Pinky (5ba4c8)

  51. I had the dubious pleasure of playing whack the mole with a browser hijacker the last few days. What it apprently did was to make it seem as though I were clicking on various internet ads, hundreds of times a minute. Clean ones, thankfully, ranging from Honda automobiles to retirement communities. The only purpose I can think of is to cheat the buyers of those ads if they are paying per number of clicks.

    I think it would be now technically possible to make every visit to every site identifiable to the computer which made it and the push to do so might come from internet businesses.

    nk (34c5da)

  52. They caught them. The hoaxers. Apparently they did it to cover up an earlier burglary.

    nk (34c5da)

  53. NK,

    That is good news and Well Done! on finding this.

    DRJ (a431ca)

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