August 5, 2008, 12:00 AM

E-fencing bill targets online auction sales of stolen goods

A bill submitted in Congress last week would require operators of online auction sites to identify, review and in some cases block the operations of those suspected of selling high volumes of merchandise stolen from retail stores.

A bill submitted in Congress last week would require operators of online auction sites to identify and review the operations of those suspected of selling high volumes of merchandise stolen from retail stores. Site operators would also be required in some cases to terminate a seller’s auction activity related to items suspected of being stolen.

The E-Fencing Enforcement Act of 2008 targets the growing trend of organized criminals who sell stolen merchandise in online auctions, where they have been able to get up to 70% of a stolen item’s original value, compared to only 30% offline such as through a pawn shop or on a street corner, says Joseph LaRocca, vice president for loss prevention at the National Retail Federation, the retail industry trade organization.

"E-fencing is quickly becoming thieves` preferred method for disposing of stolen retail merchandise," he says. "By hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet, they can make more money with less risk of getting caught than selling to a stranger on a street corner who might turn out to be a police officer. This bill would lift that cloak and help law enforcement put online criminals where they belong-behind bars."

In a survey it conducted last year, the NRF found that 85% of retailers were victims of organized retail crime. It also cites figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation noting that retailers lose between $15 billion and $30 billion to organized retail crime each year.

The bill, also known as House Rule 6713, requires online auction site operators-when requested by legal authorities or by a retailer who has reported a theft to authorities-to provide the name and contact information of sellers who have amassed at least $12,000 in sales in the prior 12 months or who have sold a single item for $5,000 or more.

The auction site operator would be responsible to “determine, based on information reasonably available to it or that could be obtained by the provider without undue expense, whether the goods or items were lawfully acquired,” the bill says. “If the provider determines that there is good reason to believe the goods or items were unlawfully acquired, it shall be the duty of the provider to preclude access by the high-volume seller to the online marketplace with respect to those goods or items.”

The e-fencing bill was submitted to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security by Rep. Bobby Scott (D, VA), who chairs the subcommittee.

Another bill, introduced on July 15-the Organized Retail Crime Act of 2008, or House Rule 6491-would establish legal wording that operation of online auction sites could be considered “facilitation” of organized crime if the site operator could not prove it had taken specific steps to ensure that goods sold in its auctions were not obtained illegally by the seller. This bill was introduced by Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D, IN) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH).

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