Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Understanding Your Local Problem

All the information provided above constitutes only a generalized description of stolen goods markets. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.

To understand the dynamics of the stolen goods markets in your own area, interview known offenders and informants. It is important to talk with those who steal, sell, deal, and use stolen property, as well as those who might know about them. See Appendix B for a sample offender interview relating to stolen goods markets. You should routinely solicit the following groups for information:

  • current, recently active, and ex-offenders (thieves, burglars, fences, drug dealers, drug users);
  • prisoners (convicted of burglary, theft, handling stolen goods and drug use or dealing); and
  • confidential informants.

† See Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 3, Using Offender Interviews to Inform Police Problem Solving, for further guidance.

You should also ensure that the general public can easily and confidentially report suspicious activity related to stolen goods to the police.50

Evaluation of the Market Reduction Approach in England found that reviewing old case files and interviewing officers in the field can also reveal intelligence about offenders and fencing hot spots.51, ††

†† You can analyze qualitative data about stolen goods market locations and operators using qualitative research software.

Where possible, you should analyze at least a few years' worth of such data, because this will reduce the likelihood of making strategic decisions based on temporary and uncharacteristic data peaks or troughs.52 In addition, you should analyze crime location data for fencing incidents using crime pattern analysis techniques on geographic information system software.

The importance of both quantitative and qualitative analysis of the kind recommended here cannot be overstressed if scarce resources are to be best deployed where they are most likely to be effective. And the SARA model of problem solving (Scanning, Analysis, Response and Assessment) should be used in order to reach the right solution to your particular theft problem.

The kind of research outlined above may not be possible for police officers facing competing demands for their time. This particular expertise/time not available risk factor should be analyzed very early on in the planning and design of your stolen goods market reduction initiative. Possible solutions to this, if it is a foreseeable problem, may be to work in formal partnership with freelance academics or some other kind of crime analysis unit such as in university, police or government departments.

The best solution to a local stolen goods problem may not be the most immediately feasible and intuitive one, but may instead come as a unique breakthrough borne of complex and painstaking analysis.

Stakeholders

In addition to local criminal justice agencies, the following groups have an interest in the stolen goods trading problem, and you should consider the contribution they might make to gathering information about the problem and responding to it:

  • Business associations (e.g., representing retail merchants, bars, scrap dealers) have an interest in preventing merchants who trade in stolen goods from undercutting legitimate merchants' market share and may know which merchants are suspected to be trading in such goods.
  • Retail loss prevention professionals have an interest in reducing losses from diversions of legitimately purchased wholesale merchandise into the illegitimate stolen goods markets.
  • Crime reporting hotlines (e.g., Crime Stoppers) may have information on particular suspected thieves and fences, as well as emerging trends.
  • Internet governance and crime-reporting clearinghouses.†††
  • Tax authorities are interested in stemming lost tax revenue attributable to stolen-goods trading and may have information about suspicious business enterprises.
  • Regulatory agencies know what sorts of regulatory laws might apply to businesses suspected of trading in stolen goods.
  • State and national police agencies might know how local stolen goods markets are connected to larger, more sophisticated criminal enterprises.

††† See www.e-victims.org

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular stolen goods markets problem, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on. Some of these questions can be answered only through in-depth interviews with thieves. It is important to note that these questions should be asked before new anti-fencing initiatives begin and then again once they have had a chance to bite. By way of example, after an anti-fencing initiative, any recorded falls in theft, accompanied by (1) a decrease in perceptions of ease of selling and buying among offenders (2) and/or increases in risks and decreases in the perception of the rewards of selling and buying stolen goods, would indicate that it is the police operations that have had the desired effect on falling theft levels rather than some other cause. Such measures are most important in finding out what works in reducing stolen goods markets and when seeking to attribute causes to falling theft figures. Similarly, such qualitative data may also explain increases in theft levels if offenders reveal the existence of new buoyant markets for stolen goods.

Stolen Goods Markets

  • How much stolen goods trading is occurring in your jurisdiction? (Remember that official police recorded crime data are of little help here since the public rarely report such offenses, and many receiving-stolen-goods cases are actually cases in which thieves have pled guilty to a lesser charge when evidence of the original theft is weak.53). Therefore, qualitative data of the kind recommended in the Understanding Your Local Problem section above are invaluable.
  • What types of stolen goods markets are dealing in particular types of stolen goods?
  • Are certain types of markets shrinking or even shutting down? Are new types of markets emerging?
  • Where are the markets for particular types of stolen goods?
  • What is the typical discount rate for stolen goods? Is this increasing or decreasing?
  • What proportion of goods stolen in your jurisdiction do you estimate are then sold in stolen goods markets, as opposed to being used by the thief, recovered by police, or discarded?
  • How easy and quick is it for thieves to find a buyer for their stolen goods?
  • How easy and quick is it for fences to find a buyer for their stolen goods?
  • How do thieves transport stolen goods to fences?
  • What do thieves typically do with property immediately after stealing it (e.g., sell it or trade it immediately on the street, hide it while searching for a buyer, sell it immediately to a pawnshop or fence)?
  • How often do thieves need to dump goods that they could sell?

Offenders

Thieves

  • Who deals in particular types of stolen goods, which markets are they dealing in, and how?
  • What do thieves perceive to be the risks of selling stolen goods?
  • What do thieves perceive to be the rewards of selling stolen goods?
  • How do thieves avoid being detected when selling stolen goods?
  • How do thieves learn where to sell stolen goods?
  • How safe do thieves feel transporting and stashing stolen goods?
  • How safe do thieves feel when dealing with a fence?
  • How concerned are thieves about getting caught?
  • How much do thieves know about police operations against stolen goods dealing?

Fences

  • Who are the fences (e.g., professional, quasi-legitimate merchants)?
  • What do fences perceive to be the risks of buying stolen goods?
  • What do fences perceive to be the rewards of buying stolen goods?

Consumers

  • Who in your jurisdiction tends to buy property that they know or should suspect is stolen?
  • What do consumers of stolen goods perceive to be the current risks of buying them?
  • What do consumers of stolen goods perceive to be the currentrewards of buying them?

Targets

  • What types of goods are commonly being sold in stolen goods markets? Which types of targeted goods are newly popular? (Monitoring international, national, and local changes in the supply, demand, and price of certain goods and commodities can help you anticipate new theft and stolen goods trading problems. For example, global shortages of various metals have preceded surges in metal theft many times in the past.). Simply keeping an eye on newspaper and other news items may reveal trends in this area. For example, a surge in reporting of strange thefts of cast iron road and side-walk drain covers, large bronze sculptures, metal road signs and copper wiring from electricity sub-stations and railway sidings are all examples of the upsurge in scrap metal theft caused by global shortages at the time of writing. Police agencies without resources for monitoring such factors might form useful collaborative research partnerships with university departments specializing in the effect of market trends upon crime, or those with an interest in developing such expertise.

† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 58, Theft of Scrap Metal, for further information.

Locations and Times

  • Where are the fencing operations located within your jurisdiction?
  • Are there seasonal variations in the types of goods traded in stolen goods markets (e.g., snowblowers in winter, lawn mowers in summer, stereo equipment and laptop computers at the beginning of universities' academic years, textbooks at the beginning of semesters and just before exam periods)?

Tips for Understanding Local Stolen Goods Markets

  • Interview a sample of people who work in the wholesale and retail goods sectors. Without talking about crime, find out how and why goods are rejected by or shipped away from the retail stores that originally bought them, and where they end up.
  • Map possible stolen goods market hot spots. Discuss with colleagues, informants, offenders, ex-offenders and other experts such as government officials or criminologists why certain areas might be conducive to stolen goods markets.
  • Photograph store signs in your jurisdiction that seem to invite thieves to sell stolen goods there. Again, discuss with crime experts of the type listed above.††
  • Conducting representative surveys of theft victims and of the general public at the county, city or town level is expensive, is time-consuming, and due to the specific characteristics of local crime problems offers little useful information for local initiatives.

†† These tips are modified from Felson (2002).

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your crime problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. You should take all measures in both the target area and the surrounding area. A longer time frame is usually necessary for measuring the impact of responses to stolen goods markets.54 For more-detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 1, AssessingResponses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.

Although seeking to reduce theft, burglary, and robbery by reducing the stolen goods markets that motivate thieves is a simple and compellingly logical idea, the reality is more complex. Stolen goods markets are remarkably adaptable to efforts to close them down. Goals are often difficult to achieve, and even if positive results are achieved, they can be hard to measure with certainty.55 It is important therefore to set achievable, measurable goals.

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to stolen goods markets. These measures are divided into two groups: those that measure the impact on the problem (outcome measures), and those that measure your agency's responses to the problem (process measures).

Outcome Measures

  • Reduced incidence of theft, burglary, and robbery
  • Reduced incidence of trading in stolen property

Process Measures

  • Increased time and difficulty selling stolen goods
  • Increased arrests, prosecutions, and convictions for charges related to stolen goods markets
  • Decreased public tolerance for stolen goods markets