By Sgt. Michael A. LeVasseur
Crime and Safety Specialist
What is a fence? A fence is an individual who knowingly buys stolen property for later resale, sometimes in a legitimate market. The fence thus acts as a middleman between thieves and the eventual buyers of stolen goods who may or may not be aware that the goods are stolen.
E-Fencing is the sale of stolen or shoplifted items on the Internet, typically on online auction sites or classifieds like eBay and Craigslist. It is estimated that e-fencing is a $35-40 billion a year criminal enterprise.
Anonymity and Safety
Criminals don’t have to walk into a pawn shop and provide vital information which could identify them. E-Fencing doesn’t put them at risk by unloading stolen goods all at once, it’s much safer to stay at home, sell the stolen product online, and mail it piece-by-piece to unsuspecting buyers. This is very profitable when most of us are holiday shopping.
Criminals can operate from almost anywhere there’s electricity and internet service — a garage, storage locker, warehouse, or travel trailer. The seller of the stolen merchandise doesn’t necessarily have to be secretive with his stolen goods. It’s as simple as taking an internet order, emailing that order to his distributor and having the merchandise packaged and shipped to you. If it’s shipped at all.
By selling stolen goods on internet sites like eBay or Craigslist, a thief can typically get 60-80% of actual value. This compares to 10-20% at a pawn shop.
Economics of the Sale
Pawn shops are local, so a thief has a limit on how much merchandise they can unload each month. eBay and Craigslist are nationwide making them a virtually unlimited market.
E-Fencing Lowers the Risk of Being Caught
Internet sites like eBay, Yahoo Auctions and Craigslist have limited verification of sellers, and subsequently create an incentive for thieves to use them to unload stolen merchandise.
Some of the most common goods stolen and sold online are small electronics, GPS devices, rechargeable batteries, shavers, headphones and household items.
Criminals who engage in organized retail crime frequently use online sites to fence stolen goods. This allows them to avoid face-to-face contact with buyers and local law enforcement investigating high volume theft of merchandise from manufacturers.
Pending federal legislation would require online auction operations (eBay, Yahoo Auctions, Overstock, Craigslist) to retain information about high-volume sellers and provide that information to “a person with standing” once a valid police report is filed.
Indicators of E-Fencing
Sellers offering large quantities of one product over several time frames may be suspect.
If you intend to use an online auction site to shop and you have some concerns about items being auctioned, contact the site. Check to see if the seller offering the goods is in good standing with the site.
Determine if there are a number of complaints filed against the seller. Most sellers on eBay have a link for reviews. Read some of the reviews from previous buyers. If the reviews aren’t favorable, we in law enforcement call that a clue.
At the end of the day, when the sun sets, it’s really up to us whether we’re going to be a victim. Take the time to verify who you’re going to give your credit card information to before attempting to make an online purchase.