Shoppers score at online police auction

March 12, 2008 8:37:17 AM PDT
Bargain hunters who troll eBay, Craigslist and the ever-ubiquitous garage sale for cut-rate designer duds, costume jewelry and even cars now have another option for their deal-hunt: Propertyroom.com. Like eBay, Propertyroom.com auctions off clothes, memorabilia and other items to the highest online bidder. But unlike its forebear, Property Room's inventory consists of items confiscated from drug dealers, thieves and other alleged criminals.

Police auctions hawking everything from impounded vehicles to bags of jewelry are nothing new, according to Propertyroom.com CEO P.J. Bellomo.

"Local municipalities conducted police auctions the same way they had for 75 years," Bellomo told ABCNews.com. "The same 20 bidders were showing up from pawn shops. It was a drain on resources. Police lost a lot of money. Why can't we do this online?"

Nearly 10 years ago, former New York City Police Officer Tom Lane came up with the idea for a Web site that would link different cities to take excess seized property off their hands. In its current incarnation, the site has deals with more than 1,200 municipalities, including Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, to sell dozens of items, often at cut-rate prices.

For police departments with dwindling room to store property ? since laws require authorities to retain evidence in murder and sex cases for longer and longer ?the site makes perfect sense, Bellomo said.

"More and more items can't be purged for a very, very long time," he said. "Space is really becoming a premium."

Staff from Property Room will make a pickup, then sell and ship the item; the site and the city share the proceeds from the auction.

For some police departments, using the auction site makes sense for another reason: getting property that has legitimate uses, but is often used for illegal activity, out of the area.

Case in point: Growing lights in Humboldt County, an area of northern California known as a hot bed for marijuana farming.

The Humboldt County Sheriff's Department has used Propertyroom.com to clear out its inventory of just that item since 2001.

"We had some stuff here that is the result of dope-growing operations and we did not want to resell it locally," said Bruce Slocum, a property technician at the Sheriff's Department. "Grow lights are basically what we have to get rid out of the area. We just don't want to see them again."

The department sells all of its other items at a local auction yard.

And bargain hunters have it even better. Last year, the site received a bag of costume jewelry, and loose in the bag was a pear-shaped diamond appraised at $31,000. The lucky auction winner nabbed it for $22,000.

Police departments often don't understand the value of what they're selling.

"We picked up a whole bunch of hand tools wrapped up in this rug," Bellomo said. "We undo the rug and this looks like kind of a nice rug."

The old rug ended up being a Persian and after its appraisal was sold on the site for $15,000.

Since its first sale in 2000 -- a $20 Pentax camera to a man in Houston -- the site has come a long way. For now, it offers all manner of merchandise, from a Sony video camera and a Gucci watch to bicycles and a classic miniature car collection. The site even sells used city vehicles such as fire trucks and Crown Victorias once used as police cruisers.

In addition to the usual offerings, the site has also dipped into more bizarre items, including a coffin, a colonoscope and a vintage fire truck.

As one founder puts it, "People will steal absolutely anything and people will buy absolutely anything," Bellomo said.

In accordance with arrangements with city police departments, the site has agreed not to sell certain items such as guns or drug paraphernalia, but sometimes, although the items are searched and vetted by the cities, illicit items "slip through."

"We've found a grenade launcher; we had to return that to the police department. Speaker systems that people put in the car these days. We've opened up speaker systems and found all sorts of 'goodies' -- drugs and weapons," Bellomo said. "It happens."


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