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Responses to the Problem of Stolen Goods Markets

Your analysis of your particular stolen goods problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should next consider possible responses to address it.

The following response strategies provide a pool of promising ideas for addressing your particular theft and stolen goods market problem. The strategies summarized in Appendix A and those outlined in more detail here are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. For example, it is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable local analysis and wider research knowledge. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: consider also whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. In some cases, you may need to shift the responsibility of responding toward those who can implement more-effective responses. (For more-detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems.)

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

1. Adopting a comprehensive approach to stolen goods markets. A comprehensive approach to policing stolen goods that is occurring in the U.K. known as the Market Reduction Approach,56 addresses both supply and demand for stolen goods, and addresses the offenders who actively participate in stolen goods markets, the people who facilitate stolen goods markets, and the places and networks in which stolen goods markets occur.

2. Establishing and sustaining multiagency partnerships. The police working alone will be less effective than those working with agencies that can bring into play other intelligence, regulatory authority, and capacity to affect business practices. A working group comprising partner agency representatives from diverse areas such as retail loss prevention, revenue, business licensing, environment and trading standards can coordinate a large initiative and keep it on track. Particularly important is facilitating local prosecutors' active involvement at your initiative's planning and development stage so that police enforcement efforts achieve their maximum effect.57 Adopting a written interagency data-sharing protocol at an early stage of the partnership can make future analyses and operations run more smoothly.58

3. Improving investigations of stolen goods markets. Although this guide does not focus on crime investigation methods, improving your agency's capacity to investigate theft, burglary, robbery and stolen-goods trading cases can be important to overall control of stolen goods markets. The following suggestions for improving criminal investigations relate to stolen goods markets:

  • Consider setting up a specialized stolen goods market investigative unit. Specialized investigators can develop the necessary criminal intelligence, expertise, and resources to acquire evidence necessary to arrest and prosecute professional fences. Such specialization is obviously not feasible for smaller police agencies but might nonetheless be possible through joint agency task forces. Take care to guard against stolen goods investigators' being diverted to investigations and activities unrelated to stolen goods markets.59
  • Avoid enlisting known fences as confidential informants because fences recruit and encourage local thieves to steal more frequently.60
  • Apply for warrants to search the homes of those arrested for theft, burglary, or robbery for stashed stolen property. If the arrested person is on probation or parole, the supervising agent may be able to authorize or conduct such a search.
  • Encourage police officers to routinely ask thieves where they sell stolen goods. While most will be reluctant to divulge such information, some will reveal at least some of the ways they sell stolen goods.
  • Enlist technology for investigative purposes. Trying to identify thieves and fences by investigating suspicious classified ads is resource-intensive and seldom productive.61 On the other hand, searching Internet-based goods markets (such as eBay or Craigslist) and doing automated pawnshop record searches to seek out specific known stolen goods offered for sale are more efficient approaches and likely to be more productive.62
  • Encourage neighborhood groups to report suspicious local trading activities, for example, and consider setting up or using existing crime-reporting hotlines, offering rewards for information leading to the conviction of those buying and selling stolen goods.

Specific Responses To Reduce Stolen Goods Markets

4. Regulating and inspecting pawn- and secondhand shops. Police and other relevant officials should routinely visit and inspect pawn- and secondhand shops to encourage compliance with laws designed to inhibit stolen goods markets.63 Local statutes and ordinances might be drafted to require pawn- and secondhand shops to submit transaction records to police daily and, ideally, in an electronic format that police can automatically compare against police reports about stolen goods.§

§ This is required by law in New South Wales Australia. See: www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au/Businesses/Specific_industries_and_businesses/Pawnbroking_and_secondhand_dealers/Computerised_records.html

Statutes and ordinances that regulate how pawnbrokers and secondhand dealers§§ conduct business can make it more difficult for thieves to sell them stolen goods.64 At a minimum, such laws should require pawnbrokers and secondhand dealers to conduct all in-shop purchases on camera in public areas of their businesses, retain these CCTV recordings for at least three months and make them available to police on request, and demand and record valid proof of identification from sellers and maintain transaction records that are open to police inspection.65, §§§ Other laws should ban people from reselling merchandise door to door, at least without having a proper business license.

§§ The term "secondhand dealers" is intended to include such operations as antique shops, flea markets and "swap shops" (Newfoundland and Labrador Government, 2006), and consignment stores. Not all such operations call for identical regulations, but local analysis should indicate which operations are prone to trading in stolen goods.

§§§ The U.K.'s city of Nottingham enacted a comprehensive law to control stolen goods markets. See www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=6602&p=0.

5. Conducting reverse-sting operations. Rather than set up conventional fencing sting operations, conduct reverse-sting operations that entail police officers' posing as thieves selling stolen goods to fences,66 or else use known thieves who agree to wear a wire when selling to a fence.67 Unlike antifencing sting operations in which police buy stolen goods, reverse stings are both more likely to be effective and less likely to backfire by promoting more theft.68

6. Conducting publicity campaigns to discourage buying suspected stolen goods. Publicity campaigns to discourage citizens from buying what they should suspect are stolen goods are intended to reduce the demand for stolen goods that drives many theft problems.

You should carefully design and pretest publicity campaigns—including those involving TV, radio, print media, posters and stickers, leaflets or the Internet—to ensure that you're changing attitudes in the intended, rather than the opposite, direction. What works in the use of media to change attitudes is complex and likely to be counterintuitive.69 Attempts to convince the public not to buy stolen goods may actually backfire and make the problem worse.70, §

§ See Response Guide No. 5, Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns, for further information about how to design and assess crime prevention publicity initiatives. 

Even well-designed and well-implemented publicity campaigns to discourage participation in stolen goods markets will not solely suffice to address the problem, but rather must be done in combination with other responses that disrupt and reduce the markets.

7. Encouraging those who facilitate stolen goods markets to report thieves and fences. Encourage people who are in the position to learn who is stealing and selling stolen property—for example, taxi drivers, bartenders and liquor merchants, barbers and offenders apprehended on other charges—to report thieves' and fences' identities. You might need to offer them cash or other incentives for this information. Take care, however, not to leave them vulnerable to intimidation or retaliation from those whom they report.§§

§§ Evaluation of the Market Reduction Approach in England (Hale et. al., 2004) found that taxi drivers and bar owners may be particularly reluctant to report those selling stolen goods because they feel intimated by such criminal customers. What this research reveals is that any initiatives seeking to routinely gather intelligence from such sources will need to satisfactorily reassure potential informants that their confidentiality and safety has been given primary rather than secondary priority.

Encouraging the general public to report incidents in which people approach them on the street or at their homes, offering to sell them deeply discounted goods, can lead to arrests of those selling stolen goods.71

A word of caution: Be wary of driving stolen goods markets deeper underground. Assess the possible unintended consequences of cracking down too hard on stolen goods markets if it means that those buying stolen goods get deterred from seeking police assistance or cooperating in investigations of more-serious crimes.

8. Closing down fencing operations. In addition to using criminal law, explore enforcing civil laws such as those that govern taxes, fire safety, public health, building structures and maintenance, nuisances, business licenses or zoning to compel property owners to either cease fencing operations or close the operations entirely. Under some circumstances, you might also be able to enforce criminal and civil statutes relating to organized criminal enterprises, such as the U.S. federal Racketeering-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statutes or equivalent state laws.

9. Seizing assets connected to stolen goods markets. If you succeed in building a criminal case against a fencing operation, you should explore the feasibility of also seeking the seizure and forfeiture of assets linked to the criminal enterprise.§

§ See Response Guide No. 7, Asset Forfeiture, for further information.

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

10. Improving systems for disposing of recovered stolen goods. Police agencies recover and store large amounts of property, some of which is known to be stolen; some suspected, but not proved, to be stolen; and some not even reported as stolen. Although returning stolen property to its rightful owner does little to reduce theft or control stolen goods markets, it nonetheless can improve victims' satisfaction with police service and help reduce the often large property inventories in police custody.

Historically, police efforts to link recovered property to reported thefts and to rightful owners has been difficult and time-consuming.72 There is some promise that modern information technology can make these efforts more efficient. New police property-tracking software programs and Internet-based property-tracking systems can make it easier to link recovered property to reported thefts and to rightful owners.

When police agencies can't link recovered property to its rightful owners, they often seek to return that property to the local community via charitable donations or auctions. This is especially common with recovered bicycles.§ The merits of such initiatives are beyond the scope of this guide, but a couple of words of caution are in order: some recovered goods might no longer be safe or desirable for consumers, and local businesses that sell the same goods the police are giving away or selling might lose sales for those goods.

§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 52, Bicycle Theft, for further information.

11. Conducting sting operations. Conventional sting operations against stolen goods markets entail deploying police officers to pose as buyers to catch thieves selling stolen goods. This might be done through fake pawnshops, clandestine fencing operations, or online in electronic goods markets.73

Sting operations have been one of the predominant responses police have used to address stolen goods markets. Many such antifencing operations have focused on commercial fences.74 These tend to be short-term operations in response to theft sprees.

The majority of the best available research strongly suggests that you should avoid police storefront antifencing stings because they require huge amounts of resources and do more harm than good.75 Stolen goods sting operations can have the unintended effect of encouraging more theft in the area to meet the perceived new demand.76, §§ Moreover, they often provide an infusion of cash that winds up in local illegal drug markets. When a new fencing sting operation opens in an area, unsuspecting thieves might prefer to sell there because of the convenient location (the farther thieves have to transport stolen goods, the greater the chance of getting caught).77 In addition, if the sting operators offer what thieves perceive to be good or fair prices, they might be induced to commit more thefts to boost their income.78

§§ See Response Guide No. 6, Sting Operations, for further information.

Reports of successful sting operations often fail to fully examine the wider harm they cause79 and are often little more than self-promotional how-to manuals.80

12. Promoting property-marking schemes. Property-marking has never been proved to reduce theft largely because thieves will steal marked property and fences and citizens will buy it. Despite the sometimes bold assertions commercial companies make about their property-marking products' success, and despite the fact that property-marking is relatively easy to do, independent academic research concludes that property-marking does not reduce theft.81 Property-marking remains a favored police response to theft, and police officers often justify it on the grounds that it is good for public relations and helps in property recovery. However, even this is completely unfounded, and such property-recovery schemes can easily consume entire budgets set aside for targeted crime reduction, while being completely ineffective at returning property.82

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