Fence (criminal)

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In Charles Dickens' 19th century story Oliver Twist, Fagin (far left) is a fence who recruits homeless boys and trains them as pickpockets.

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 not be aware that the goods are stolen. As a verb, the word describes the behaviour of the thief in the transaction: The burglar fenced the stolen radio. This sense of the term came from thieves' slang, first attested c. 1700, from the notion of such transactions taking place under defence of secrecy.[1]

The fence is able to make a profit with stolen merchandise because he is able to pay thieves a very low price for stolen goods. The fence then disguises the stolen nature of the goods, if possible, so that he or she can sell them closer to the white market price. In the 2000s, newer "fencing operations hide from sight in legitimate businesses and show discipline and precision in their dealings".[2] Fencing is illegal in the United States and in the United Kingdom, but the "legal requirements for demonstrating that fencing has occurred are complex".[3]


Car stereo thieves typically want to sell the stolen item quickly. By selling to a fence, they avoid the hassle and suspicion of selling directly to the final buyers.

The fence is able to make a profit with stolen merchandise because they are able to pay thieves a very low price for stolen goods. Thieves agree to this because their alternatives may present a greater risk of the thief being caught. As well, selling stolen goods takes a great deal of time and effort (transaction costs), as the thief would have to try to contact a number of potential buyers and show them the merchandise. Some habitual thieves are so well known to police that if the thief were to attempt to sell any used goods, this would quickly draw the attention of the police.

The fence then disguises the stolen nature of the goods, if possible, so that he or she can sell them closer to the market price. Depending on the stolen item, the fence may attempt to remove, deface, or replace serial numbers on the stolen item before reselling it. In some cases, fences will transport the stolen items to a different city to sell them, because this lessens the likelihood that the items will be recognized. For some types of stolen goods, fences disassemble the good and sell the individual parts, because the sale of parts is less risky. For example, a stolen car or bike may be disassembled so that the parts can be sold individually. Another tactic used by some fences is to retain stolen items for some time before selling them, which lessens the likelihood that the burglary victims or police will be actively looking for the items in auctions and pawnshops.

Authorities have explained that "newer fencing operations hide from sight in legitimate businesses and show discipline and precision in their dealings."[2] Some fences maintain a legitimate-seeming "front" through which they can sell stolen merchandise. Depending on the type of stolen merchandise a fence deals in, "front" businesses might be discount stores, used goods stores, a coin and gem store, auction houses, or auto salvage yards. The degree of illicit activity in each "front" business may differ from fence to fence. While one fence's salvage yard may consist mainly of stolen auto parts, another fence's used good store might consist mainly of legitimately purchased used goods, with the stolen merchandise acting as a minor, but profitable, sideline.

"Pricing norms and prevailing market conditions are used to determine what is 'fair,'" in terms of pricing.[3] "Professional thieves who steal high-priced items are usually given the highest amounts—about 40% to 50% of the wholesale price. The amateur or drug addict thief who is not in a good bargaining position will receive the smallest amounts—often only ten to twenty cents on the dollar. Fences also often use chicanery to pad their profits by duping thieves (especially small-time thieves) about quality, quantity, and price."[3] For example, a fence may falsely tell a small-time thief that the market for the type of good which the thief is selling is flooded with this type of merchandise, to justify paying out a lower price.

Research on fences shows that they view themselves as entrepreneurs, who do "wheelin' and dealin'" based on "extensive networking, developed through word of mouth, referrals, and sponsorship by underworld figures". As the title of Darrell J. Steffensmeier's book —The Fence: In the Shadow of Two Worlds—indicates, fences are the bridge between the criminal world (thieves, burglars and shoplifters) and the legitimate world (e.g., everyday people who purchase used goods). Some "major fences also play an active role in coaching thieves on techniques of theft and product identification, and in developing long-term relationships with buyers" of stolen goods.[3]

There are a number of different types of fences. One way of categorizing fences is by the type of good they trade in (e.g., jewels, power tools, electronics). Another way of categorizing fences is by their level of involvement in buying and selling stolen goods (e.g., ranging from it being an occasional "sideline" to it being the mainstay of their criminal occupation). At the lowest level, a hustler or drug dealer may occasionally accept stolen goods. At the highest level would be a fence whose main criminal income comes from buying and selling stolen items. At the broadest level, two tiers of fences can be distinguished. The lower level of fences are those who directly buy stolen goods from thieves and burglars. At a higher level are the "master fences", who do not deal with street-level thieves, but only with other fences.[3]

The degree to which the purchasers of the stolen goods know or suspect that the items are stolen varies. If a purchaser buys a high-quality item for a low price, in cash, from a stranger at a bar or from the back of a van, there is a higher likelihood that the items may be stolen. On the other hand, if a purchaser buys the same high-quality item for the standard retail price from a used goods store, and obtains a proper receipt, the purchaser may reasonably believe that the item is not stolen (even if, in fact, it is a stolen item).

Legal aspects[edit]

Fencing is illegal almost everywhere, usually under a similar rationale as in the United States, where receipt of stolen property is a crime in every state, as well as a federal crime if the property crossed a state line. Occasionally federal agents will temporarily set up a false fence sting operation. "Many organized crime members and associates are involved in the fencing of stolen property" (Pennsylvania Crime Commission, 1991).[3] "The legal requirements for demonstrating that fencing has occurred are complex. In America, as in England, there are three elements to the crime: (1) The property must have been stolen; (2) the property must have been received or concealed (though the fence may not have actually seen or touched it); (3) the receiver must have accepted it with knowledge that it was stolen."[3]

Pawnbrokers have often been associated with fencing, though in many jurisdictions, government identification must be shown in order to pawn an item and police regularly check pawnshops for stolen goods and repossess any stolen items. While pawnbrokers do not like this characterization of their business, police efforts have indicated that some pawnbrokers are involved in fencing. For example, in the US, the "Sarasota Police Department, Venice Police Department and North Port Police Department assisted with the undercover operation to sell gold jewelry to each [pawnshop] business. Many were found to be in compliance. However, a number of businesses were operating under a 'no questions asked' policy, making no attempt to properly document the seller information, record the items being purchased or obtain the seller's fingerprint, all of which are state requirements".[4] Money laundering could be described as the "fencing of currency".[citation needed]


Stores have complained that increasingly, shoplifters are stealing goods with the intent of selling them anonymously online. In this photo, a store loss-prevention officer scans the security cameras for shoplifters.

E-fencing is the sale of stolen or shoplifted items on the Internet. According to The Sunday Times, criminals use both "pawnbrokers and internet auction sites as convenient sources of cash".[5] According to the article, "Thanks to eBay, the shadowy world of fencing stolen goods is now electronic and accessible to all."[5] "There is mounting concern about the electronic trade in stolen goods. Police statistics suggest there were more than 8,000 crimes on eBay reported last year, about one every hour, involving stolen goods, fraud or deception."[5]

Crime rings steal in-demand items from retailers, then sell them online, because "anonymity and a worldwide market make Internet sales safer than ever for criminals... — safe enough that some rings take pre-orders, confident they can steal what's in demand. "Target, Supervalu, Wal-Mart and other retailers are pushing federal legislation to fight what they call 'e-fencing.'"[6] "To date, the online industry has fought off bills in Congress that, among other things, would have required eBay, Amazon.com and other online brokers to keep serial numbers of certain items and reveal records of high-volume sellers to businesses that suspect those sellers traffic in their stolen merchandise."[6]

An eBay spokesman has claimed, "Perhaps the dumbest place to try to fence stolen materials is on eBay," and news agencies have reported incidents of the police purchasing stolen property directly from thieves, leading to their capture. However, one California prosecutor differs with this, saying, "There's no need for the pawnbroker. Internet auctions have suddenly become a really easy way to fence stuff."[7] According to CNBC, in January, 2007,[8] e-fencing is a $37 billion business. Retailers have been complaining about the online sale of their stolen goods but the online auction industry has taken the stance that retailers need to do more policing instead. According to eBay's Vice President of Trust & Safety, Rob Chesnut, it is the job of major retailers to prevent criminals from lifting their products.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "''Online Etymology Dictionary''". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2009-09-09. 
  2. ^ a b Wilber, Del Quentin (August 16, 2004). "D.C. Cracks Down as Stolen-Goods Dealers Evolve: Fencing Becomes More Sophisticated, Disciplined". Washington Post. p. A01. Retrieved June 24, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g what-when-how In Depth Information: FENCING STOLEN PROPERTY (police) http://what-when-how.com/police-science/fencing-stolen-property-police/ Accessed June 24, 2011.
  4. ^ Warner, Bill. "No Questions Asked: Sarasota Pawn Shop Businesses Charged in Sting Operation, Black-Market Fencing Easy Cash For Burglars & Armed Robbers." April 25, 2011. http://www.zimbio.com/Crime,+Background+Checks,+Foul-Play,+Fraud+And+Investigations/articles/JFXTKyZc6TE/No+Questions+Asked+Sarasota+Pawn+Shop+Businesses Accessed on June 24, 2011.
  5. ^ a b c April 11, 2009. EBay: brisk bidding in stolen goods. business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/columnists/article6074448.ece
  6. ^ a b Spencer, Jim. "Target, other stores battle theft rings fencing stolen goods on Web. Minneapolis Star Tribune. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2014975231_storetheft06.html?syndication=rss Accessed June 24, 2011
  7. ^ siliconvalley.com/mld/siliconvalley/3443962.htm[dead link]
  8. ^ Pierce, Tarik (2007-01-25). "Efencing Theft Problems on eBay". Investortrip.com. Retrieved 2009-09-09. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Steffensmeier, Darrell J. The Fence: In the Shadow of Two Worlds. Rowman & Littlefield, 1986.