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Real steals at online police auction

Consumer Watch

Selling seized items, Property Room can be your personal, legal fence.

February 10, 2008|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

If you buy something from online auctioneer Property Room, you don't have to wonder if it was stolen.

That's because it probably was.

Property Room, started by a former police detective, gets its items from law enforcement property rooms nationwide. Most of its inventory of jewelry, bicycles, computers, furniture, tools, car stereos, cameras, sports equipment, portable music players and things that could best be categorized under miscellaneous -- or bizarre -- was seized from crooks.

Some of these items are well worn, others so pristine they're still in shrink wrap.

And now they can be yours.

"Two things I've learned in this business," said Harry Brockman, a vice president of Property Room Inc., standing in a company warehouse full of thousands of items.

"One: People will steal anything. Two: People will buy anything."

Old-fashioned police auctions once were held in parking lots and other civic locales. Now they're often done online.

"We used to have auctions downtown and in Van Nuys," said Steven Johnson, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Property Division, "and as few as 15, 20 people might show up.

"If you're online, you open up to the nation."

Property Room (www .propertyroom.com), which went online in 2001 with a smattering of items from the Police Department in Eureka, Calif., and a few other places, has grown to the point where it has deals with more than 1,200 agencies, including the Los Angeles, Burbank and Pasadena police departments.

Think of the site as your personal, legal fence.

Time to play perp. Let's see what's available.

Property Room has four warehouses across the country -- including its original location in the City of Industry -- to hold things that are on the site or being readied for auction.

Even before entering the local warehouse for a tour, it was clear that bicycles were one of the main items being offered.

In the parking lot, John Karstom was loading seven bikes into the back seat of his 1997 Buick LeSabre. Three more went on a rack at the rear of the car. (If you live near a warehouse, you can pick up things.)

He won the entire lot with a bid of $10, and from the look of the bikes -- dirty, missing parts, sometimes rusted -- he may have overpaid. But Karstom, who estimates that he has 100 bikes in various states of repair at home in Irvine, says he can get some of them back on the road.

"They're good for the college kids," Karstom said. The salvageable ones can sell for at least $30 apiece. "Sometimes," he said, "you get a diamond in the rough."

Also in the parking lot, Hilda Romero of West Covina was loading wheelchairs won in a recent auction into her van.

"There's always people to buy them," she said. "It's tough for those with no insurance to get new ones."

In the warehouse, bikes were stacked on racks to the high ceiling. But they were far from the most prevalent type of inventory.

"That would be electronics," Brockman said.

There were cardboard boxes jammed full of car stereos, pallets topped with desktop computers and printers, racks of DVD players and home theater sound systems and bins holding the kind of booming auto speakers that would seem to ensure hearing loss.

The television inventory included a 42-inch Magnavox LCD model -- imagine lugging that out of someone's house -- and a wide variety of digital still cameras and camcorders.

Lots of tools were in evidence, from hand drills to heavy industrial machines used to smooth concrete.

"It's the kind of thing that gets stolen from job sites," said Rob Hagen, chief executive of Property Room.

One of the larger items was an upright piano on which was painted the plaintive message, "Homeless but not pianoless."

Hagen said he didn't know the story behind it and couldn't say where it was from. "Police departments don't want us to disclose that," he said.

One item that was a mystery even to him was a chair covered in a leopard-print fabric and shaped like a woman's high-heeled shoe.

"Maybe it came from a brothel," Hagen said.

Jewelry is kept locked up in offices. Last week a loose 1.73-carat diamond went for $3,620 after 147 bids.

Lots of Rolexes and other high-end, brand-name watches come into the warehouse. Brockman said all are examined to check for fakes. If a watch turns out to be a knockoff, he said, it doesn't make it to the website; it's destroyed.

Property Room is tiny compared with EBay, but the words "police auction" hold a certain mystique.

"It's a crowd gatherer," said Gene Govoreau, manager of General Auction Co., which holds live public auctions every three weeks at its facilities in Buena Park.

Property Room has gotten so successful at bringing police departments onboard that competition was inevitable. Juststolen.net, created last year by a police officer in Brookline, Mass., funnels items from police departments onto EBay for auction. So far, its only major source is the Boston Police Department.

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