Safety and Gifting Groups
Gifting groups such as The Freecycle™ Network are wonderful. Local groups across the globe keep tons of perfectly good stuff out of landfills while bringing people together in community.
Unfortunately, some people just aren't nice, and we don't necessarily want to be brought together with them. Since it is necessary to give out personal information in order to meet to exchange items, how can people participate while staying safe?
While gifting groups can bring people together, they cannot control the contacts people have outside the online groups. Maintaining good personal boundaries is up to the individuals involved.
Happily, the vast majority of the interactions people have through gifting groups go swimmingly.
Using common sense and thinking ahead will do more than anything else to keep you safe. Give out no more information than is necessary, and stay alert. If you have a weird feeling about someone, don't give that person any information. If you're offering an item, you're under no obligation to respond to anyone but the person to whom you decide to give it. If you're asking for something, it cannot possibly be as important as your safety. Listen to your intuition!
First: Do not ever give out information to a group at large. Only give your contact information to the single person you have chosen to receive an item. Don't post your phone number or address on a group. The "it's out there, first to come by gets it" practice is dangerous.
Second: Do not give out more information than is necessary. Other members do not need to know that you live alone, work nights, are disabled, or are a single parent. Someone who is coming to your home to pick up an item doesn't need to know where you work or what you do for a living. Someone meeting you at work doesn't need to know where you live. If you're going somewhere to meet the other person, he doesn't need to know where you work or live.
Whenever possible, do not meet anyone you don't already know very well alone. Do not be alone or in your place of business alone when you expect someone to come pick up an item from you. And for goodness sake, certainly don't leave your children alone for a pick-up!
Fourth: Keep track of who you've given your information to. It won't take up much space, and you may need that information later. Write down who you are meeting, where, when, and any contact information you have for that person. Leave a copy of that information at home or at work. Give it to your spouse or roommate, if you have one.
After you've chosen a recipient, it's time to arrange for transfer of the item. Ask yourself a few questions. Does someone actually need to come to your home for an item, or could you meet that person somewhere else to exchange it? Or even leave it somewhere (not at your house or place of business!) for them?
If it is absolutely necessary for someone to come to your residence or place of business to pick up the item, don't ever say, "I won't be home, just pick it up." You don't need to tell people when you won't be home! Set a time that is convenient for you. Never indicate that you'll be home alone, and do not set a time when children will be home alone.
If you're giving away a computer, wipe the hard drive to remove any personal data. DBAN is a freeware program that will do a great job of removing data from a PC. I'm not aware of Mac resources, but I imagine they do exist.
Be absolutely honest about whatever you're offering. If it doesn't work, say so. If it's clothing that's too worn out or stained to wear, offer it as rags.
Unfortunately, the old adage of "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," applies here. For instance, while many vehicles have been given away through gifting groups, I've never heard of any of them being late-model vehicles in great condition. They're usually clunkers that are worth little to nothing in trade-in value, and wouldn't bring in enough on a sale to make it worthwhile to go to the trouble of listing it for sale.
Many times, too-good-to-be-true end up being teasers to get you into some kind of multilevel marketing scam, or one of those deals where you can get the item if you gather enough click-throughs at a particular web site. Some offerers have turned out to actually be selling the item offered, rather than gifting it. If any of those things happens, forward the information to the group's facilitators.
I've heard of offerers asking respondents for photos, measurements, a date - all kinds of completely riduclous things. Cut off contact with such people immediately, and forward the emails asking for that information to the group moderators/facilitators.
Be absolutely honest in any correspondence. Don't misrepresent yourself or your need for the item offered. If you plan to resell the item, volunteer that information. Hard feelings lead to problems. Avoid them.
If There's a Problem
If you have unpleasant dealings with someone you meet through a gifting group, do not try to "warn" others via the group. Approach the group moderator/facilitators, but realize that their options are somewhat limited. They cannot tell the group at large that person X is (fill in the blank), as that would open them to charges of libel. If they remove that person from the group, it is likely that he'll just rejoin under another name.
The facilitators can put the person on moderation. They can also issue a general reminder to the group that certain bad things might happen, and point the members toward information so that they can protect themselves.
If You Are Harassed
If someone contacts you repeatedly after you've asked that person to go away, you may be experiencing harassment. If the contacts are online, read through the articles at Working to Halt Online Abuse for further information. If the contacts are offline, document them. Trace phone calls. Call the police, if necessary, to stop the harassment. Most US states do have stalking laws now, as do many other countries.
Online or offline, keep everything. Document every interaction. Never destroy anything that might be evidence!
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are responsible for your safety and that of your family. Information cannot be "recalled" once it is out, so don't give it to anyone unless there's a need to do so. Always err on the side of caution if you have any weird feelings about someone, in gifting groups or elsewhere.
Originally Published February 7, 2005