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Stolen Goods Markets

Guide No. 57 (2010)

by Michael Sutton

The Problem of Stolen Goods Markets

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide addresses the problem of stolen goods markets. The guide begins by describing the problem, then provides advice on how best to analyze local, national, or international stolen goods markets; reviews tactics that you can use to detect those involved in stealing, dealing, and using stolen goods; and suggests ways to assess the tactics' likely effectiveness in specific situations and locations. The ultimate aim of reducing stolen goods markets is to make it more difficult and risky for people to trade in stolen goods and thereby discourage stealing in the first place.

Most burglars and other prolific thieves steal to raise money, and to do so they need to sell whatever they steal. To obtain money by stealing things, the prolific and relatively "successful" thief must routinely complete two objectives without getting caught. The first objective is to steal valuable items. The second objective is to sell or trade the stolen goods. Ultimately, the prolific thief's main aim is to acquire something else—often drugs or alcohol—with the money gained from selling the stolen goods. While police and prosecutors commonly think of this scenario as comprising two crimes—one being theft and the other receiving stolen goods—from the thieves' standpoint, they haven't completed the action until they've acquired what they ultimately desire. Understood this way, the theft is only the beginning of the crime, not the end of it.1 While other theft-related problem-oriented guides address thwarting the thief's first objective, this guide addresses the second objective.

Those who knowingly buy stolen goods do not have recourse to legal remedies and so serious violence may be used as a means of criminal dispute resolution.2 Stolen goods markets are but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to property theft and illicit markets. This guide is limited to addressing the particular harms stolen goods markets create, with a focus on ordinary consumer goods. Some specialty stolen goods markets, such as those dealing in firearms, cultural artifacts, art, or endangered species, have unique features calling for separate analyses and different responses. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which requires a separate analysis, include the following:

Property theft problems

Market-related problems

Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.

This guide is designed to help police officers and other officials reduce varied theft problems with different resource levels and in various locations by promoting tailor-made solutions to specific local problems.

General Description of the Problem

Stolen goods markets facilitate the demand that drives much property theft. Even though stolen goods dealers and consumers create the demand for stolen goods, police and crime reduction efforts remain firmly focused on thieves.3 Police agencies close many property crime investigations once they arrest the thieves, and pay less attention to tracking the stolen property.4

Many stolen goods markets are so clandestine, they are harder to research and police than drug trafficking, theft, and violence, for instance.5 However, much stolen goods trading goes on in relatively plain view, such as where goods are hawked openly on the streets or in pawn- and secondhand shops. At least some stolen goods markets are clearly visible, so long as you know what you are looking for and understand the criminal dynamics of what you see.6

Gathering sufficient evidence to prosecute the stolen goods middleman—the fence—is difficult as fences often hide their illegitimate activities behind legitimate business fronts. Professional fences know how to do this well and can operate for years with impunity.7

Harms Caused by Stolen Goods Markets

Stolen goods markets cause a number of social harms. Some local stolen goods markets are linked to larger and more sophisticated organized criminal enterprises. Those who buy in stolen goods markets create a demand for their own victimization and also fuel the victimization of others. And since theft is not evenly distributed, legitimate merchants and residents in high-crime areas are either refused theft insurance or else pay considerably higher premiums. The price of goods in shops reflects profits lost to thieves and stolen goods markets, and merchants who refuse to trade in stolen goods are often undercut and lose business to those who do. Meanwhile, the consequent fear of crime creates uncertainty and discourages business investment, population stability, and growth necessary for local economies to thrive.8 Finally, because those involved in stolen goods markets tend not to resort to the law to resolve their disputes, for fear of being found out themselves, they often resort to violence to resolve them.9

Factors Contributing to Stolen Goods Markets

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.


Stolen goods trading typically involves several steps, beginning with the theft itself and culminating in an end-consumer's obtaining the stolen goods. Understanding the actions offenders take and challenges they face in each step will help you design methods to disrupt the process at several points in the crime process. Figure 1 depicts these steps.

Fig. 1. Chain of transactions in stolen goods markets (modified from Cornish, 1994).

Fig. 1. Chain of transactions in stolen goods markets (modified from Cornish, 1994).

Supply and Demand—The Key Issue in Most Thefts

As with any market, the relationship between supply and demand for stolen goods can be complex. Generally, the demand for stolen goods increases the incidence of theft. This makes sense because, for the most part, thieves won't steal goods unless they first know or believe other people will buy or trade for them.10 General awareness that many business owners and members of the wider public are willing to buy stolen goods motivates thieves to start and continue stealing.11 Young thieves learn from their families, neighbors, and peers about their community's willingness to buy stolen goods. Knowing who buys stolen goods and how to deal with them makes stealing a viable choice for some young people growing up in less wealthy areas.12

† The supply-and-demand relationship is not always this simple. The relationship between people's willingness to buy stolen goods and others' readiness to steal them is sometimes complex (Ferman, Henry, and Hoyman, 1987).

Once thieves know people are generally willing to buy stolen goods, stolen goods markets are mainly fuelled by thieves' offering goods for sale, rather than by proactive demand from dealers or consumers.13 Thieves' offers to sell stolen goods have the greatest influence on how stolen goods markets operate. This is because most dealers and consumers do not actively seek out stolen goods: someone needs to offer these items to them.14 Strangers frequently offer small-business owners stolen goods.15

Sometimes thieves steal items to order. This means they are asked to supply particular products or quantities by theft. Prolific fences tend to encourage thieves to increase their offending in this way. But stealing to order is not as common as stealing to offer.16

Commonly Stolen and Sold Goods

Knowledge of the "standing demand" for stolen goods affects the type of goods stolen, depending on what is most in demand at the time, and can at times lead to problem crime waves when thieves target particular highly sought items. Statistical research proves that most thieves have an ever-changing hierarchy of goods that they prefer to steal. Research with thieves themselves reveals that they rarely hoard stolen goods for more than an hour or two, at most, since they seek as near to immediate cash returns as possible—and want to avoid getting caught in possession.17 This means that thieves are unlikely to steal and hoard goods that they do not currently know to be in high demand on the off chance that they will be saleable in the future. Since most thieves steal because they want money in a hurry, at the top of their list is cash, followed by items that they can easily and quickly sell for relatively high prices, such as jewelry and high-tech home entertainment equipment.18

Understanding what makes products attractive to thieves will help you anticipate new theft targets, and consequently what new products are likely to become popular in stolen goods markets.19 So-called hot products typically have one or more of the following attributes that can be summarized by the acronym CRAVED, in that they are the following:







The more of these attributes a thing has, the more attractive it is for someone to steal it. However, because we know that prolific thieves rarely steal items for their own use, the last three attributes are the most important because they relate to items' worth and not just to their portability. It is this worth of items that makes them disposable as products that thieves can sell or swap for drugs.

The demand for and prices of goods in legitimate markets influences what products are hot in stolen goods markets.21 Knowing, for example, what retail goods shoplifters are stealing, while perhaps not too important to police from a criminal investigation standpoint, might be quite important from a crime prevention standpoint, because shoplifting is often a gateway crime to more-serious theft and a fallback crime for prolific burglars to support their drug use.22

Stolen Goods Market Locations and Times

Although theft can occur any place where there is something to steal, much burglary and other theft are concentrated in particular areas, and thieves prey more often upon particular types of people in those areas.23 Likewise, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, stolen goods markets can occur anywhere. But once again, they tend to be concentrated in the least affluent areas.24 Accordingly, stolen goods markets are one of the major contributing factors to criminal victimization in less-affluent areas, since thieves prefer not to travel far when selling stolen goods.

Thieves generally prefer to sell stolen goods locally,25 and they sell most stolen goods within 30 minutes of their theft.26 Therefore, a concentration of local thefts might (but not necessarily) indicate the relatively close proximity of a local market for those goods. It must be noted, however, that while this is something worth exploring in the first instance, it should not be done at the expense of neglecting other possibly more important markets farther afield.

Stolen goods trading takes place at odd times of the day and night as much as it does during normal business hours.27

Stolen Goods Buyers

In addition to professional fences, average citizens buy stolen goods. At least in the United Kingdom, buying stolen goods, like many other offenses, is a crime most often committed by those who are young, single, male, relatively unskilled, and living in relatively deprived areas.28 These, of course, are simply those who are, overall, statistically the most likely to be offered and to buy stolen goods. At any time, business owners who are not professional fences may buy stolen goods. The same is true for tradespeople and anyone else within any population of "ordinary folks" who find it hard to resist the chance of a bargain with no questions asked.

Public Tolerance of Stolen Goods Markets

Whereas most citizens are intolerant of thieves and of stealing, they tend to be more tolerant of stolen goods buyers and sellers because they are seen as entrepreneurs providing the valuable local service of making goods available at bargain prices.29 In addition, many so called "ordinary folks" ask no questions, or accept the standard "it fell off a truck" lines, when offered deeply discounted valuables. Even if they do not buy, most are unlikely to report people selling goods in this way.30 Police cannot afford to ignore the prevailing community attitudes toward buying stolen goods.31

Links With Illicit Drug Use

In the United Kingdom, some 29 percent of arrested thieves are heroin or cocaine users, and these are the most prolific offenders, probably responsible for more than three-fifths of the illegal income generated by selling stolen goods.32 However, drug dealers are often reluctant to exchange drugs for stolen goods.33 This means that stolen goods markets play at least as important a part as regular illegal hard drug use in explaining high theft rates and, therefore, represent an equally important opportunity for crime reduction initiatives. That said, drug dealers do accept certain kinds of property in exchange for drugs, and they also buy stolen property.34 Drug dealers are known to buy, in particular, stolen expensive designer wear and jewelry for their own use.35 Buying and selling stolen goods is, for many offenders, a gateway offense into buying and selling drugs.36

Stolen Goods Market Types

Stolen goods markets tend to have particular local, as well as national, characteristics in terms of what thieves steal and how those involved conduct transactions.37 Consequently, reducing these markets calls for locally tailored solutions.

There are six stolen goods market types that are distinctive in the ways that thieves, dealers, and consumers operate.38 No one market type is more serious or important than another in terms of the role it plays in promoting theft. The six market types are as follows:

† For further information on "eSelling," see Wilbur (2004), Skelton (2005), Tuckey (2007), Talamo et al. (2007), and Newman and Clarke (2003). See Davis (1998) for a useful guide for police officers investigating Internetfacilitated crime.

By and large, offenders—particularly those operating within network sales markets—are flexible in how they use available markets.

Sellers' Dilemmas

Understanding the dilemmas those dealing in stolen goods face is useful in designing prevention and control strategies.

The stolen goods seller's dilemma is that to increase his chances of making a profit, he has to increase his risks of getting caught. The seller can choose to sell only to people he knows, which reduces his risks of getting ripped off or detected but restricts his sales and buying opportunities. Or the seller can sell to strangers, which allows him access to more potential customers but also increases his chances of getting arrested or ripped off.39 This dilemma applies to both the thief and the dealer (the fence), but the business-owning commercial fence also has to simultaneously gain the confidence of thieves with whom they deal, while maintaining a clean public image.40

These conflicting demands of access and security determine to a large extent the structure of local stolen goods markets.


Some stolen goods dealers are professional fences who conceal their activities behind legitimate business fronts. Others are not, but operate instead out of their own homes or else on the move, using, for example, networks of associates linked by mobile phone. In other markets, consumers and innocent dealers may buy directly from thieves rather than through a fence.

Fences tend to specialize in selling in particular market types, but some sell in more than one market type. For example, fences operating in commercial fence supplies markets may deal at home as residential fences, but also be involved in network sales41or even "eSelling," particularly where stolen items not sold through their legitimate retail business are being traded.

There are several types of fences, including the following very useful typology constructed by Lewis (2006) to outline the specific dynamics of different types of commercial fencing operations:

Commercial fences use their business front to recruit thieves who come in offering them stolen goods. (This is the commercial fence supplies market operating at Level-1.) They also mix stolen goods in with their legitimate stock. Somewhat perversely, this helps to sell legitimate stock, as people think they are getting a genuine bargain if goods are stolen, even when they are not. (This is the commercial sales market at Level-1.)44

Most-Basic Fencing Principles

Understanding the unique dynamics of particular offending can help identify and also understand the behavior of less visible offenses and offenders that facilitate more visible crime problems such as theft. For a professional fence to operate and avoid arrest, he needs to coach promising thieves to avoid detection and maximize profits. He must conceal his stolen goods trading behind a legitimate trading front. He should remain willfully ignorant about whether the goods that he buys from other dealers are stolen. He must try to offload stolen goods quickly to avoid detection, but also know when it is safer to store them and sell them later. He must avoid getting caught in possession of stolen goods, but if he is, he should know how to make it difficult for police to prove that he knows the goods are stolen. He must be careful not to work with police informants and limit the number of people who know about his business. He must never admit to knowingly trading in stolen goods if the police question him. And, if all this fails, he must have money for a good lawyer if police arrest him.45

Operation Methods

Inexperienced thieves tend to sell mostly by hawking to strangers in public places or selling to only one residential fence they know.46 Problem drug users in particular commonly find it hard to find fences who will deal with them.47 The most experienced and prolific offenders tend to have the most ways of selling stolen goods in a variety of markets.48 A study of experienced residential burglars found that they most often sold stolen goods to known fences, friends, or relatives rather than strangers.49

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:

† 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.


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:

††† 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






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

Locations and Times

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

Process Measures

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:

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.

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.

† 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.

†† 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,

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.

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

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.††

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.

†† 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.

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

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

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

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

Appendix: Sample Stolen Goods Market Offender Interview

The following questions can be asked in the present, rather than the past tense, if interviews are conducted by a skilled social scientist questioning active offenders while offering the interviewees full ethical assurances of anonymity. English constabularies using the Market Reduction Approach employed outside academic consultants to interview offenders in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire83, Operation Radium in Kent84 and the We Don't Buy Crime initiative in West Mercia85. Police officers and other police employees may not be in a position to offer the same assurances of confidentiality.

1. What sentence did you receive for your last theft offense?

2. What kind of things did you steal?

3. From where did you steal?

4. How often did you steal?

5. How did you decide what to steal?

6. Did you know what you were going to do with the items before you stole them?

7. What did you do with what you stole?

8. How did you know to whom/where to sell?

9. Why was it easier to sell to that person/place?

10. How did you learn the best ways to sell stolen goods?

11. Where did you (and others) sell the following types of stolen goods?

12. To how many different people did you sell?

13. For each type of stolen good, how did you sell?

14. Did people buy stolen goods without asking any questions about where they came from or proof of identity?

15. Do you think the shopkeepers knew the goods you were selling were stolen?

16. How easy was it to sell each type of stolen goods?

17. Did police ever catch your fence/dealer?

18. Did you ever need to dump goods?

19. How did you know where to take stolen property?

20. How long did it take you to get rid of property?

21. If you had to store/stash goods, where did you do that?

22. How did you transport what you stole?

23. Did you ever swap stolen goods for drugs? Or trade stolen goods for anything else?

24. Did you work alone or with someone else?

25. Did you earn money from selling stolen goods shared with someone?

26. Did anyone ever ask you to steal to order? What sort of property?

27. Did you ever ask someone else to sell something for you? Who (don't need to know names)? What sort of property?

28. What did you do with any money you got from what you stole?

29. Why did you steal and sell stolen goods?

30. What did community members think of buying stolen goods? Did they ask? Did they turn a "blind eye"?

31. Were you aware of the police when you were stealing or selling stolen goods? Did you take precautions not to get caught?

32. Did you have any strategies to ensure that buyers were not going to inform police?

33. What did you know about police operations against thieves and dealers?

34. How concerned were you about your chances of getting caught?

35. How long did it typically take you to sell your stolen goods?

36. Were or are you aware of any markets closing down as a result of police intervention?

37. Were or are you aware of any increased police interest in where stolen property was or is sold?

38. Did property-marking deter you from stealing? Were there particular types of marking that deterred you more than others?

39. Did you get a good return for the goods you sold?

40. Did prices for particular goods go up? If so, did that affect what you stole?

41. Did prices for particular goods go down? Did that stop you from stealing such things?

42. What do you think affected/affects price changes?

43. Are there any goods that you used to steal, but no longer would? If so, why?

Summary of Responses to Stolen Goods Markets

The table below summarizes the responses to stolen goods markets, the means by which they are intended to work, the conditions under which they should work best, and some factors you should consider before implementing a particular response. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. 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.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy
# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
1 Adopting a comprehensive approach to stolen goods markets It reduces both the supply and the demand for stolen goods ...it's based on known effective practices It can be difficult to maintain a focus on stolen goods markets as opposed to the traditional focus on original thefts
2 Establishing and sustaining multiagency partnerships It improves communication and coordination among key responders … working groups coordinate activity and maintain focus, and written protocols establish clear responsibilities and authority Partner agencies can have differing priorities and goals; large partnerships can be difficult to manage and sustain
3 Improving investigations of stolen goods markets It increases the risks of apprehension to offenders … detectives and officers are open to changing conventional investigative practices It may require additional resources to devote to stolen goods markets
Specific Responses To Reduce Stolen Goods Markets
# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
4 Regulating and inspecting pawn- and secondhand shops It increases offenders' effort to sell stolen goods and their risk of apprehension … merchants can comply with regulations relatively simply and efficiently, and police enforce regulations consistently and fairly It may require new legislative action requiring careful police justification; it may require merchants to buy new computerized records and data sharing systems; it may require additional police investigative resources
5 Conducting reverse-sting operations It promotes greater compliance with regulations restricting the purchase of stolen goods … police conduct them regularly but at unpredictable intervals, and they focus them on problematic locations It may require additional investigative resources
6 Conducting publicity campaigns to discourage buying suspected stolen goods In conjunction with wider anti-fencing initiative it reduces the demand for stolen goods and increases offenders' efforts to sell them … they are carefully designed and tested before full implementation It can waste resources if it's ineffective or backfires by encouraging more offending; it can be expensive
7 Encouraging those who facilitate stolen goods markets to report thieves and fences It increases offenders' risk of apprehension … informants are provided adequate incentives to provide information and safe avenues to do so It can increase informants' risk of intimidation or retaliation from offenders
8 Closing down fencing operations It increases offenders' efforts to sell stolen goods and reduces the wholesale demand for them … police shut down a sufficient number of-or sufficiently large-operations It requires careful and perhaps resource-intensive investigations
9 Seizing assets connected to stolen goods markets It denies offenders the rewards of trading in stolen goods … antifencing operations have sufficient assets on hand to deter future offending Some state asset-forfeiture laws are restrictive and difficult to enforce
Responses With Limited Effectiveness
# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
10 Conducting traditional anti-fencing sting operations     It can have the unintended effect of increasing local demand for stolen goods
11 Improving systems for disposing of recovered stolen goods     It is unlikely to reduce theft or stolen goods trading; it may be too resource- intensive
12 Promoting property-marking schemes     Thieves tend to steal and consumers tend to buy even marked property. When police presence returns to normal, crime rates rise to previous levels.


[1] Walsh (1976).

[2] Sutton (1998), p. 68.

[3] Plate (1975); Sutton (1995).

[4] Kerckhoff and Kleinknecht (1980); Walsh (1976).

[5] Steffensmeier and Ulmer (2005).

[6] Sutton (2008, 2003a, 1998).

[7] Steffensmeier and Ulmer (2005).

[8] Walsh (1976); Pennell (1979); Weiner, Besachuch, and Stephens (1981); Harris, Hale, and Uglow (2003); Hale et al. (2004); Sutton (2008, 1995).

[9] Reuter (1990, 1985); Venkatesh (2006); Rosenfeld (2009).

[10] Tremblay, Clermont, and Cusson (1994).

[11] Sutton (1998).

[12] Steffensmeier and Ulmer (2005).

[13] Sutton (1998); Felson (2002).

[14] Sutton (2008, 2003a).

[15] Sutton (1998).

[16] Sutton (2002).

[17] Sutton (2008, 2003a, 1998).

[18] Johnson, Natarajan, and Sanabria (1993); Clarke (1999).

[19] Sutton (2003a); Gill et al. (2004); McKinnon (2006); Nahmias (2006); NACS (2007); Talamo (2007); Reno (2008); Finucane (2009).

[20] Clarke (1999).

[21] Tremblay, Clermont, and Cusson (1994); Sutton and Schneider (1999); Gill et al. (2004).

[22] Sutton (2008); Sutton, Schneider, and Hetherington (2001): Schneider (2005b, 2003).

[23] Pease (2002).

[24] Sutton (1998); Felson (2002).

[25] Langworthy and Lebeau (1992); Sutton (1998).

[26] Sutton (2008, 2003a).

[27] Steffensmeier (1986); Sutton (2008).

[28] Sutton, Hodgkinson, and Levi (2008).

[29] Pengelly (1996).

[30] Henry (1981); Hobbs (1989); Foster (1990); Sutton (1998).

[31] Henry (1981, 1978); Parker, Bakx, and Newcombe (1988); Hobbs (1989); Foster (1990); Sutton (2003b, 1995); Clarke (1999); Felson (2002).

[32] Bennett, Holloway, and Williams (2001).

[33] Sutton (2008, 2003a, 1998).

[34] Struzzi (1998).

[35] Sutton, Hodgkinson, and Levi (2008).

[36] Ferman, Henry, and Hoyman (1987); Auld, Dorn, and South (1986).

[37] Sutton (2008, 2003a).

[38] Sutton (1998).

[39] Eck (1994).

[40] Blakey and Goldsmith (1976).

[41] Steffensmeier and Ulmer (2005).

[42] Lewis (2006).

[43] Webby (2008).

[44] Lanter (1999); Steffensmeier and Ulmer (2005).

[45] Steffensmeier and Ulmer (2005).

[46] Cromwell, Olson, and Avery (1993); Sutton (1998).

[47] Cromwell, Olson, and Avery (1993).

[48] Stevenson and Forsythe (1998); Sutton (1998).

[49] Wright and Decker (1994).

[50] Sutton, Schneider, and Hetherington (2001).

[51] Hale et al. (2004).

[52] Ekblom, Law, and Sutton (1996).

[53] Hale et al. (2004); Pengelly (1997).

[54] Walsh (1976).

[55] Hale et al. (2004).

[56] Sutton (2008); Sutton et al. (2007); Hale et al. (2004); Harris, Hale, and Uglow (2003).

[57] Walsh (1976); Weiner, Besachuch, and Stephens (1981).

[58] Harris, Hale, and Uglow (2003).

[59] Walsh (1976).

[60] Steffensmeier and Ulmer (2005); Sutton (2008, 2003a, 1998).

[61] Hale et al. (2004).

[62] Talamo et al. (2007).

[63] Hale et al. (2004).

[64] Larsen (n.d.); Justice Technology Information Network (2007).

[65] Sutton (2008).

[66] Weiner, Besachuch, and Stephens (1981).

[67] Schmitt (2003).

[68] Webby (2008).

[69] Sutton et al. (2007).

[70] Harris, Hale, and Uglow (2003).

[71] Eckersley (2003).

[72] Whitehead and Gray (1998); Sutton, Schneider, and Hetherington (2001).

[73] Skelton (2005).

[74] Webby (2008).

[75] Langworthy and LeBeau (1992); (Sutton 2008, 2003a).

[76] Langworthy (1989); Langworthy and LeBeau (1992); Pennell (1979). For contrary evidence, see Raub (1984).

[77] Langworthy and LeBeau (1992).

[78] Sutton (2003a, 1998); Felson (2002).

[79] For example, see Cotter and Burrows (1981).

[80] Smith, Sheridan, and Yurcisin (1991).

[81] Knutsson (1984) ; Sutton (1998); Harris, Hale, and Uglow (2003); Hale et al. (2004); Bent Society (2008).

[82] Whitehead and Gray (1998).

[83] Sutton (2003b, 2008)

[84] Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate (2004).

[85] Schneider (2005a).


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Related POP Projects


The quality and focus of these submissions vary considerably. With the exception of those submissions selected as winners or finalists, these documents are unedited and are reproduced in the condition in which they were submitted. They may nevertheless contain useful information or may report innovative projects.

Collaborative Pawnshop Regulation, Lakewood Police Department (CO, US), 1999

Putting the Brakes on Lorry Trailer Theft, Lancashire Constabulary, 2003