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Pennsylvania Police work to track down stolen property

Pawning for poison

By Matt Coughlin

May 27, 2013

Heroin addicts know just where to go to get cash in exchange for the goods they have looted: pawn shops and gold buyers.

The cash, and there's a lot of it, is then used to buy drugs to feed their addictions.

More than $4.8 million in valuables were taken during burglaries of Bucks County homes and businesses in 2012 and another $10.3 million was stolen from various sources such as retail stores, according to state police records. Add to that the $9.8 million worth of stolen items and $11.5 million taken in burglaries in Montgomery County and that's more than $36.4 million from the two counties in one year.

Hilltown Detective Lou Bell said that towns are getting hammered with burglaries, particularly during the day, which are fueled by the dope-sick needs of heroin and opiate addicts.

"They get valuables, jewelry, precious metals, flat screens, iPads, Kindles, laptops, GPS," Bell said. "Then they go to pawnshops, and there's a gazillion of them between Allentown and Philadelphia."

Included in the millions of dollars' worth of stolen goods last year in Bucks and Montgomery counties were jewelry and precious metals, according to records compiled by Pennsylvania State Police. Much of that was pawned by thieves, police said.

Pawn shops, by law, are required to fax or mail to local police departments or their district attorney's office reports on all jewelry and precious metals purchases within a day of the transaction.

That process, though, creates mounds of paperwork that detectives must sift through in hopes of finding stolen items, police said. The job is time-consuming, and not always fruitful, since details of the items can be vague, and therefore tough to match up with their rightful owners. One pawn shop might describe a ring as a gold engagement ring with specific initials engraved on it while another might just describe it as an engagement ring.

"It would be tremendous for law enforcement to have some (statewide) database of information," Abington police Deputy Chief John Livingood said. "With police budgets the way they are today and manpower, most police departments can't afford someone to fat-finger their way through all this information."

Bell agrees.

He said having the state police or Attorney General's Office control a statewide database would be ideal. Each sale's record would be recorded in an online database that police could access and would include information about the item pawned and a photo identification of the person who pawned it.

The state's Precious Metals Act, which governs jewelry and precious metals purchases, requires buyers such as pawn shops to hold onto the purchased items for five days before selling or melting them down. That hold period is meant to give police time to track down stolen goods, but it often it isn't long enough, police said. Before the owners realize their jewelry is gone, the gold items might have been turned into ingots.

And even if police arrive within the required five-day period, they might find that the jewelry has already been melted down by an unscrupulous dealer.

Some local governments, including Bensalem and Middletown, have gotten tougher. They've passed their own ordinances, requiring dealers to hold onto gold and other precious metals for longer periods of time.

One main factor in the new ordinances is an electronic inventory tracking system selected by the police department to upload specified information about purchases. Philadelphia and Bensalem use LeadsOnline, a company that warehouses the pawn or sales information in its database, and police can access it to look for specific items that have been reported missing or for patterns in who is selling gold.

Livingood said while law enforcement officials are pushing for a state law to create a jewelry and precious metals database, the push remains in the early stages.

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