March 6, 2009, 12:00 AM

Legislators aim to curb retail crime, including in online marketplaces

Senators and Congressmen have introduced three bills that target organized retail crime. The bills would affect how marketplaces such as eBay operate, as well as how retail sellers acquire their merchandise.

Three bills have been introduced in Congress this year that would affect how online marketplaces such as eBay operate, as well as how sellers that use those marketplaces acquire their merchandise.

The aim of the bills is to attack organized rings that steal merchandise from stores and sell it through flea markets, swap meets, pawn shops and, increasingly, online auction sites. Tens of billions of dollars of merchandise is stolen annually by these criminals, according to the Coalition Against Organized Retail Crime, headed by the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

“Bi-partisan effort will provide law enforcement officials the tools they need to stop organized retail crime, bringing federal criminal laws into the 21st Century and protecting consumers from unknowingly purchasing fraudulent or unsafe goods,” says John Emling, senior vice president of government affairs at the association.

Among the three bills introduced recently is the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act of 2009 sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Its aim is to clarify existing laws to give law enforcement the tools to fight organized retail crime, require online and offline marketplaces, including auction sites, to investigate suspicious sales, and impose disclosure requirements on online marketplaces.

The Organized Retail Crime Act of 2009 (HR 1173) was introduced by Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) and co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). It would amend federal criminal code, making it illegal to engage in activities that further organized retail crime. To deter illegal activities, it would impose specific and narrow obligations on online marketplaces known to be used by high-volume sellers of stolen merchandise.

And the E-Fencing Enforcement Act of 2009 (HR 1166), introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), aims to tackle the sale of stolen goods online, imposing “reasonable duties” on online marketplaces to collect information that law enforcement can in turn use to prosecute those that fence goods on the web. The bill requires that online marketplaces halt the sale of goods determined to be stolen.

EBay did not respond to calls for comment on how such legislation might affect its operations. Some longtime eBay sellers believe these bills would affect online retailers who buy merchandise from various sources.

“Anyone who has been a longtime seller on eBay has been effected by some sort of crime in some way. These pieces of legislation have no doubt been instigated by various forms of crime happening on eBay,” says Rick Raesz, who operates The Pink Smoothie Boutique and Your Shadow Knows on eBay and heads the Fort Worth eBay Merchants Group. “EBay, for example, has had a lot of problems with people selling knockoffs, like Tiffany jewelry reproductions. So these bills are a stimulus to get things moving, to get eBay and other marketplaces to clean up their acts. And it needs to happen, even though eBay will probably fight the legislation because it believes it can’t police all of its sellers and that it’s up to sellers to police what they sell and where they buy merchandise from.”

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