British Columbia

Hitchhiker's homicide highlights risks of looking for rides online

Despite the recent slaying of a hitchhiker who posted on social media asking for a ride from Penticton to Vancouver, people continue to use online platforms to find rides.

'We are becoming less aware and too comfortable,' says former police officer

People using social media and apps to ask for rides should be aware of the risks and be cautious about sharing information online, says a former police officer and online security expert. (Shutterstock / Zivica Kerkez)

Trying to hitch a ride on the information highway can be as risky as trying to thumb down a car from the side of the road. Yet despite the recent slaying of a Belgian tourist who did just that, people continue to flock to social media sites and apps looking for rides.

The body of Amelie Christelle Sakkalis was discovered near Boston Bar northeast of Vancouver, on Aug. 22. Sakkalis was hitchhiking from Penticton to Vancouver and had used social media to ask for rides and places to stay.

On the day of her death, Sakkalis posted on a Facebook group called Guide du Croutard, for French-speakers in Vancouver. According to the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, Sakkalis's killing was not random.

Magali Robert-Spaggiari arrived in Vancouver from France the first week of September. She is travelling alone and had no qualms about using Guide du Croutard to request a ride from Vancouver to Port Hardy, on the northern end of Vancouver Island.

"I don't feel like it's dangerous," Robert-Spaggiari told CBC News in French. "I didn't realize it could be a safety issue."

Robert-Spaggiari had read about Sakkalis's slaying but felt it was safer to go online than stand on the side of the road.

"I feel like online there is at least a digital trace," she said.

No reported incidents

Sebastien Bianchin has been an administrator for Guide du Croutard for seven years. He said not one member of the group has said they felt unsafe, but the purpose of the group is to connect the francophone community, not to connect people for rides or accommodation.

Poparide, on the other hand, is an app designed solely to connect drivers and riders in Canadian cities. CEO and co-founder Flo Devellennes said the highest volume of users are in B.C., with at least 1,000 Poparide users travelling every month between Vancouver and Squamish.

According to Devellennes, Poparide has never had a safety complaint and administrators would block any users who showed signs of abuse or harassment.

Devellennes said every user's profile picture and personal information is verified and they are rated by other users. Drivers and riders can refuse offers if they have any concerns. 

"Safety is our No. 1 priority … we are trying to reduce the need for people to hitchhike," said Devellennes. 

The body of Amelie Christelle Sakkalis was discovered near Boston Bar on Aug. 22. Sakkalis was hitchhiking and had used social media to ask for rides and places to stay. (@HomicideTeam/Twitter)

Take precautions

Darren Laur, a retired Victoria police officer and founder of social media safety company Personal Protection Systems, says people who choose to hitchhike online should use caution. 

"Just like the real world, most people [online] are good people, but sometimes you are going to run into people, both online and offline, that aren't," said Laur.

He recommends looking for more information about people online and using reverse image search tools to make sure the person you are speaking with is not using a stock photo.

Laur said the first time meeting someone should always be in a public place and people should be very careful about the information they share online.

"Because of social media and technology, we are becoming less aware and too comfortable," said Laur.

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