AUGUSTA — Buying items over the Internet can be a risky proposition. Sellers and buyers usually know nothing about the person with whom they are dealing or in the buyer’s case, the item that is being hocked.

But now people looking to safely exchange goods sold or purchased on the Internet can make arrangements to meet at the Augusta Police Department.

Deputy Chief Jared Mills, who announced Tuesday that the department has opened its lobby as an online exchange zone, hopes the new program will help deter would-be scammers.

“When you’re not sure who you’re dealing with, obviously it would only be logical to come to a safe place,” Mills said. “I talk to many people who meet in a public place, which is good, but I think we can use the Police Department as an added layer of protection. Obviously if somebody had some bad intentions, our hope is they wouldn’t come to the Police Department to do something. So I think it could deter crime.”

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said people historically have used police stations for exchanging various items, such as court documents, but he has heard of no other department in the state that has invited people involved in a private sale to use their departments.

Augusta Police Chief Robert Gregoire proposed the idea to the command staff a couple of weeks ago. Mills said the new program is not based on any recent crimes in the city, but is in response to the growing use of online sales sites such as Craigslist.

Weapons transactions are not permitted in the exchange zone, Mills said.

“Basically we discussed it and thought it would be a great idea,” he said. “I credit the chief fully for this.”

The police lobby is open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No appointment is required to plan a meeting. The buyer and seller can show up anytime. Mills said there are no plans to supervise the exchanges, so there will be no extra cost to the department. If there is a problem, however, dispatchers are available who could ask an officer to report to the lobby.

“I would compare it to being at the hospital when you get sick,” Mills said. “You’re already here.”

Mills said the police station has served as an exchange point for children from one parent to another or as a safe haven for drivers who fear they are being followed.

“This is always a safe place,” Mills said. “This is just a common-sense approach for online stuff as well.”

Mills said people involved in illegal activity are likely to go to great lengths to play out their scheme, but their motivation is likely to stop short of consummating the crime at the police station.

“There are new ways to take advantage of people coming out every day,” Mills said. “If you can at least set it up using our facility or our parking lot for that transaction, it will at least limit the times that people are taken advantage of.”

Mills said it is important for those who shop for private sales online to be on the lookout for stolen goods. He encouraged buyers to ask the sellers lots of questions about the item being sold and to ask for a picture and for the names of previous owners. Mills encouraged buyers who discover items that might be stolen to call their local police department.

“Treat everything as if it’s stolen and you’re trying to determine that it’s not,” Mills said. “If something is too good to be true, it probably is. Use that as your measuring stick.”

Online sites often are used to sell items that are stolen, which also makes them a good place for crime victims to begin looking for their missing items. Mills said he encourages victims of theft to review the online sites in hopes of identifying and locating the stolen items and perhaps the thieves who took them.

“You know your items,” Mills said. “When you check these places online, you can tell whether something is yours.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

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Twitter: @CraigCrosby4