Electronic Auction Block

A new Web site helps police agencies clear cluttered evidence rooms.

by / July 17, 2001
Thieves will steal anything -- even the kitchen sink. PropertyRoom.com, a new Web site that auctions stolen, unclaimed goods, will sell anything -- even a kitchen sink.

"We had a kitchen sink and we showed it on CBSs The Early Show, then it sold a couple of days later for 50 or 60 bucks," said Chuck Moffitt, president of Property Bureau. The San Clemente, Calif.-based company, founded by former police officers, operates PropertyRoom.com.

A traffic light, a Russian night-vision scope and a kitchen sink are just a few of the items recently sold by the site. Since going live in January, PropertyRoom.com has sold more than 85 percent of the items it has posted for auction, according to Moffitt.

PropertyRoom.com answers a longstanding question for police departments: how to deal with overflowing evidence rooms. Traditionally, law enforcement agencies organized auctions to clear space and raise a little money. But these agencies have become so deluged with unclaimed stolen goods that theyve focused on just getting rid of the stuff without concern for its value or the potential revenue to local municipalities.

The Property Bureau site offers police departments an alternative to organizing cluttered evidence rooms and holding auctions to get rid of stolen goods. Revenue generated by sales from the site is divided between the law enforcement agency and the company, with a portion of the Property Bureaus share going to scholarships for the children of police officers killed in the line of duty. Revenue from sales up to $1,000 is split evenly between Property Bureau and the departments. The company takes a 25-percent share of sales worth more than $1,000, but few items sell for that much.

One of Property Bureaus biggest boosters is the Sacramento Sheriffs Department in California.

"We projected that we could make about $30,000 a year at our auctions through our old system," said Sacramento Sheriffs Lt. Rich Merideth. "In the first two months with [Property Bureau] we surpassed that. Weve had good returns and I think theyve done a good job with the Web site."

Before partnering with Property Bureau, Sacramento managed to conduct a couple of auctions a year. Later, the department turned over its auction business to a local auction company. Either way, the department was getting limited exposure and limited dollars for its goods.

"In the old days when we did our own sheriffs auctions, it was very time consuming. It was a lot of extra work, and a lot of it was done on overtime," Merideth said. "With this system, its kind of brought us into the 21st century regarding the process and exposure of our property."

Now, instead of being seen briefly by a few people at an auction site in the back of a police station, an item passes before the eyes of tens of thousands of people who might be interested in bidding on it.

A Community Service

Another feature of the site is StealitBack. com, where visitors can register goods that have been stolen from them. "We are beginning to get a fairly big database of stolen items," Moffitt said. When the company collects stolen goods, it records the serial numbers of all the items and those numbers are matched against the StealitBack database of missing property. If a stolen item is matched with an owner, it is returned immediately.

"If somebody says Thats my wedding ring, it was [taken] from my house two years ago, well ask if theres any way they can prove it," Moffitt said. "Theyll produce a copy of a police report or maybe theyll have a picture from the wedding that shows the ring. If it looks like a match, well send the ring to that police department and theyll deal with it.

"If we can make that connection, were glad to," he said. "Its not as if it costs us a whole lot of money to maintain the database. Its really a community service."

Word Travels Fast

There were 21 California police departments signed up with Property Bureau at press time. That number is poised to grow, according to the company. "As a matter of fact, we are in conversation with about 2,000 law enforcement agencies across the country and about 300 in California," Moffitt said.

The company has gained attention through word of mouth and media coverage. It also hasnt hurt that Property Bureaus senior adviser is Daryl Gates, former Los Angeles police chief.

The company prides itself on quickly collecting unclaimed goods from departments. "Well come in the moment something is ready for disposition and take it off their hands," Moffitt said. Property Bureau stores the items at its Southern California processing center.

All auction items are inspected and tested to make sure they are functional. "There are all kinds of problems with doing business with items that are essentially used or not under warranty any longer, so we have to guarantee what we sell," Moffitt said. "We have a complex program through which we take digital photos of everything, we inspect everything, we write descriptions of the items in great detail and then we upload them to the Web site."

Property Bureau uses a proprietary bar-coding system to manage merchandise sold through the site. The system tracks all items by a control number and produces reports for auditing purposes.

PropertyRoom.com also displays all auction items individually, not in aggregate as is common practice. Therefore, buyers know they are bidding on a single, unique item. "Theres no way you can do that at a regular police auction," Moffitt said.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor