House ransacked following Internet hoax
Associated Press reported the case of Robert Salisbury, from Jacksonville, Oregon, who's house was stripped of anything that wasn't nailed down following a fake advert on CraigsList saying his possessions were free for the taking.
CraigsList is a long-standing advertising system, a form of "small ads" on the Internet in which anyone can advertise pretty well anything for free. Like all internet advertising, it has its fair share of scams and spams, but it is a popular site in the USA. On March 24th, someone posted a couple of adverts to the Oregon edition saying that Robert Salisbury had been forced to leave the area suddenly and his belongings were free for the taking. The first that Salisbury knew of this was when he received a call from a neighbour saying she wanted to claim his horse.
According to the reports, on his way back to his property Salisbury stopped a truck laden down with his ladders, lawn mowers and other equipment. He told them he was the owner but they waved a printout of the CraigsList at him and told him they "had the right" to take it. Back at his ranch, he found 30 people ransacking the property, and again they refused to stop, claiming they had permission to take whatever they wanted. It wasn't until the police arrived that he was able to put a stop to the looting. The police have said that anyone can return items, no questions asked, but if they fail to return the items then they will be prosecuted for theft
This case raises all sorts of questions. Obviously, the first thing it teaches us is that we should not believe things we read on the internet, and a free site where anyone can post anything should never be treated as a credible source. It also raises questions about the responsibilities of website owners. When you run a popular site, don't you have some responsibility to vet adverts and postings properly, and take whatever steps you can to eliminate scams and hoaxes?
But most of all, it raises questions about the credibility of these stories. Did it really happen, or is it an urban legend, a hoax about a hoax? Whilst it has been widely reported in the US press and endlessly repeated by bloggers, and whilst the reporting all sounds very credible, each report appears to be basically a copy of reports attributed to a single source, the Associated Press newswire, and there seems to have been little if any investigative journalism of what would be a significant human-interest story. Curiously, I haven't been able to find any photos of the victim. If this happened in the UK then we would surely have seen pictures of a forlorn Robert Salisbury standing outside his looted farmhouse.
Trying to verify this story has proved challenging. The small town of Jacksonville Oregon (population 2,500) doesn't appear to have a local newspaper. Its Police Department has a website which lists incident reports, and the main incident for that day seems to be the case of a lost dog, but I couldn't find any reference to the Salisbury case which would surely be the biggest case it has had for years. I emailed the Oregon State Police PR department to ask for confirmation but they have not replied. I emailed CraigsList's PR department to ask if they can confirm they carried such an advert, but they have not replied either. Perhaps there are legal reasons why they cannot comment on such cases.
I have many doubts about this story. Nevertheless, additional reports have been published in the US, one saying that some property is now being returned, and another saying that CraigsList is working with the police to identify the perpetrator of the hoax advert. If this is a hoax, then someone has gone to a lot of trouble to make it sound believable. Interestingly, researching on the net turned up a surprisingly similar story dated 5th April 2007, only this time the victim was Laurie Raye and she lived in Tacoma Washington.
16th April 2008
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