Police auctions move online

PropertyRoom.com sells confiscated property for agencies

June 21, 2008|By Steven Stanek | Steven Stanek,Sun Reporter

Stolen electronics, a repossessed truck, perhaps even a drug dealer's bling can now be yours with the click of a mouse button.

Thousands of dollars of stolen and forfeited property that used to languish in Maryland's police agency warehouses - from equipment used to grow marijuana plants to power generators - is being auctioned online to the highest bidder.

Jurisdictions across Maryland are joining about 1,300 others nationwide on PropertyRoom.com, an eBay-style auction house that specializes in selling seized contraband for local governments.

The Maryland State Police announced a partnership this month with the site; Anne Arundel police recently sent off their first batch of valuables to a Long Island, N.Y., warehouse.

Baltimore and Howard counties and Annapolis are among the 13 other jurisdictions in Maryland that have hopped on board, in hopes of making police work more efficient.

"It has freed up our evidence room," said Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the Baltimore County Police Department, which moved its cache of valuables online in 2004. "They come once a month and take our inventory off our hands, and that saves us time and saves us space."

Before the emergence of online auctions, police departments held more traditional, in-person sales. Officers were often responsible for marketing the event or selling the goods, or hiring those duties out to an auctioneer. The amount of money generated at such auctions varied based on the items for sale, but the state police's annual auction averaged about $30,000, said Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman.

The events, which occurred several times a year in some jurisdictions, attracted a few hundred people, auctioneers said.

PropertyRoom.com has about 20,000 visitors daily, said P.J. Bellomo, the company's chief executive officer, who said the more people who see the goods, the better the chance to sell them.

"The reality is a lot more Maryland citizens will bid online as opposed getting in their car, driving down to a local auction and raising a paddle to bid," Bellomo said. "The Internet increases public access to the goods, and it lowers the cost of doing the auction for the police department at the same time."

"We come up, we take all the goods away, we do marketing," he added. Police "don't have to pay overtime or hire an auctioneer. ... Everybody wins."

The convenience comes with a price: PropertyRoom.com, founded in 1999 by a former detective in the Long Beach (N.Y.) Police Department, typically takes in from 25 percent to 50 percent of the earnings from each sale, Bellomo said. The remainder goes to the general funds of local jurisdictions.

The company, based in Mission Viejo, Calif., expects to conduct about $25 million to $30 million in transactions this year, said Bellomo, an increase of 20 percent over the previous year. He added that buyers typically get a discount of 40 percent to 60 percent off of the "street price."

Auctioneers, who collected a much smaller cut of the take - about 10 percent - are less than enthusiastic about the shift to the Web.

John Gasparini, chief operating officer of Isennock Auction Services Inc, a White Hall-based auctioneer that conducted the state police's annual auction in Jessup, said online auctions could put local auction companies out of business.

"The online auction process, while certainly effective, does redirect a lot of revenue outside the state of Maryland," Gasparini said. "This does not help us keep revenue coming in and auction jobs within the state. ... It's harder for us to be economically viable."

Gladys Ridge, executive secretary of the 121-member Auctioneers Association of Maryland, agreed, but she said online competition is nothing new, and auction companies must learn to compete in the digital age.

"Every auctioneer in the world is already fighting eBay. You just have to adjust the way you do business," she said, adding that many auction houses have started selling their products on the popular Web site.

The change means more of the public will get to bid on a host of oddball items collected by police.

Bellomo said among his best customers are commercial plant nurseries who are looking to buy grow lamps and hydroponic supplies on the cheap. PropertyRoom.com has a selection, confiscated from marijuana plant growers.

He also listed power tools and items such as power generators taken from construction sites as frequently posted items.

The site has sold a 1934 $1,000 Federal Reserve note for $1,750, a $23,000 diamond and an ax-shaped guitar signed by Kiss guitarist Gene Simmons. However, the site does not deal in guns or pornography and won't put personal service medals, such as a Purple Heart, on the auction block.

PropertyRoom.com also has a registry to return stolen goods if the rightful owners recognize them online.

Items such as a stolen hot tub, a $10,000 digital pinball machine and kitchen cabinets that were stripped from someone's house were among the strangest valuables to pass through the property room of the Anne Arundel County Police Department, said Kim Natcher, who has managed property there for eight years.

Natcher said the new system makes her life easier.

"I just think it's not only more efficient but is also a better way for property rooms to improve their accountability," she said, adding that all of the goods are now bar-coded and can be tracked on the Web.

"I just love it. ... It's such a big help for property room people like me."

steven.stanek@baltsun.com

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