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Dateline Enters the 'Wild, Wild Web' of Online Classified Ads

Dateline NBC's Chris Hansen investigates the world of online classified ads, such as Craigslist, by confronting those who sell drugs, human organs, counterfeit electronics, and even a hitman-for-hire online.  This special Dateline report airs Friday, October 26, at 10pm/9c.

By Allan Maraynes
Senior Investigative Producer, Dateline NBC 

It’s a crisp autumn day in the park, and there’s Chris Hansen, sitting across a table from a stranger he just met.  The man’s munching on lunch while Chris begins the conversation.  Chris is suggesting there’s someone who’s been causing him problems; a thorn in his side.  The man has agreed to meet Chris because he says he can make Chris’s problem, “disappear.”

The stranger is suggesting he’s a hit man.

But what’s most interesting is where Chris found the stranger.  Of all places… on Craigslist.

 They used to be called “the classifieds.”  A few pages in the back of the newspaper, hundreds of dry listings of cars for sale, apartment rentals, and help wanted ads.  For many, the classifieds were just something to pass on the way to the sports pages.  But today, the classifieds have taken on an entirely new dimension.  No more type-setter to pay to place an ad in a newspaper.  Most are placed for free, at the touch of a home keyboard or smartphone.  As a result, there are millions and millions of “listings” in the worldwide on-line universe.  Listings that are much more than just cars for sale or apartments for rent.  They’ve become a glimpse into who we are; a look into the secret lives, dreams, and even schemes of millions.

When Producer Dan Slepian and his team of nimble video shooters began sifting through the main venues for online classifieds (backpage.com, and the most popular, Craigslist), it didn’t take long to find some very intriguing posts.  But we didn’t want to merely exchange emails.  We wanted to actually meet the people behind these posts out in the open.  So we adopted online aliases and began arranging meetings.   

We found a post offering to sell narcotic painkillers with no prescription.  We know that’s illegal. Another listing seemed to be offering entire list of marijuana “clients” - for a price.   In other words, someone was apparently selling his pot business.  

 We found someone who wanted to sell a kidney.  It didn’t take long to find another post offering the same thing.  What would drive someone to the brink of parting with a bodily organ - for cash?

There were listings from people warning us about scams.  One poster claimed his boss was selling counterfeit electronics in a high end shopping mall (a boss for whom he was still working!).    Another post warned about a kitchen cabinet supplier who allegedly took thousands of dollars, but ultimately never delivered the goods.  

We also found a listing offering to sell Madonna tickets, so we set up a meeting in a New Jersey Railroad station.  The seller showed up with computer generated tickets.  But we wanted to know if the tickets were real.  We got on the phone with Ticketmaster, the online ticket seller, and the company did confirm that the tickets were indeed fake.

The Dateline report 'Wild, Wild Web' airs Friday, October 26th, at 10pm/9c.  Chris Hansen reports.