“Fencing”—the crime of buying and reselling stolen merchandise—is one of the links that binds theft to the larger social system. Without someone to dispose of stolen property, thieves would have to rely on their own connections, and both the costs and the risks of crime would increase substantially. For the rest of society, the fence provides an opportunity for interested people to buy something at less than market price.
Fencing remains a rather poorly researched area in criminology, for several reasons. First, it often wears the cloak of legitimate business and is carried out in a rational, business-like manner, so that it has few of the qualities traditionally associated with crime. Second, because fencing is a crime with low visibility and is conducted in secrecy, researchers have directed their attention to more visible crimes such as theft or to violent crimes against persons, for which statistics are available. Third, the cloak of secrecy and the maintenance of a legitimate ”front” make detailed investigation difficult.
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.
Case Studies of Fences
Much of what is known about fencing today comes from two in-depth studies of individual fences, one being Carl Klockars’ work, The Professional Fence (1974), and the other being Darrell Steffensmeier’s The Fence: In the Shadow of Two Worlds (1986). Klockars interviewed ”Vincent Swaggi” (not his real name), a well-known fence in his city, while Steffensmeier interviewed ”Sam Goodman” (also an alias), a well-known fence in an unnamed American city. Steffensmeier also interviewed thieves and customers who had contact with Sam, several other fences, and law enforcement officials to authenticate Sam’s account of events. Subsequently, Steffensmeier and coauthor Jeffery Ulmer updated the criminal career and fencing operation of Sam in a recent work, Confessions of a Dying Thief: Understanding Criminal Careers and Criminal Enterprise (2005).
These works portray the fence as an ”entrepreneur” and describe fencing as an enterprise requiring resourcefulness, charisma, ingenuity, and a good grasp of market practices and the rules of economic competition. Pricing norms and prevailing market conditions are used to determine what is ”fair,” and a sense of justice is developed based on the risks borne both by the thief and by the fence. Fences must pay a fair price so that thieves will come back to them again with stolen goods. However, because of their greater experience and knowledge, fences tend to dominate thieves in the pricing of stolen goods. The thieves often need money quickly, have few options other than to agree to the fence’s offer, and are under pressure to get rid of the stolen merchandise.
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.
These studies document that ”wheelin’ and dealin”’ fences rely on extensive networking, developed through word of mouth, referrals, and sponsorship by underworld figures. 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. Rewards of fencing include money, reputation in the criminal community, excitement, a sense of mastery over one’s life, and pride in being a ”sharp businessman.” Vincent and Sam justified their fencing involvement by claiming that the fence is not the same as a thief, does little harm to the victims of theft, does not differ much from legitimate business people, is able to operate only with the support of legitimate people (including the police), breaks no more rules than most people, and does a lot of good for others.
All fences are by definition businessmen: They are middlemen in commerce— albeit illegitimate commerce—providing goods and services to others, regardless of whether they operate from a legitimate business or rely solely on individual resources. Although a few operate independent of any business ”front,” most fences are simultaneously proprietors or operators of a legitimate business, which provides a cover or front for the fencing. Businesses most often favored are those having a large cash flow (for example, a coin and gem shop, secondhand store, auction house, or restaurant) and the flexibility to set one’s own hours (for example, a salvage yard or bail bonding). For some fences, the trade in stolen goods is their major source of income and the central activity of their business portfolio. For others, fencing is either a lucrative sideline to their legitimate entrepreneurship or just one of a number of illicit enterprises they are involved in.
Although some commentators (for example, Walsh 1974) have described the typical fence as essentially a ”respectable businessman,” the evidence that is available strongly suggests otherwise (see Stef-fensmeier and Ulmer 2005). The typical fence is characterized by one or more of the following: (1) prior criminal contact or background in criminal or quasi-legal activities, such as theft, hustling, or the rackets in general; (2) operation of a quasi-legitimate business such as a secondhand discount store, salvage yard, auction house, foundry, or bail-bonding business; (3) affinity with the underworld, such as ongoing business and leisure associations with its established members. It is hardly surprising that many organized crime members and associates are involved in the fencing of stolen property (Pennsylvania Crime Commission 1991). The significance of the fences having affinity with the underworld and not only within the realm of seemingly honest business is in terms of their acquiring the skills and contacts necessary to run a fencing business.
Types of Fences and Stolen Goods Handlers
Already by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, with the growth of fencing operations accompanying industrialization, it was commonplace for students of fencing to distinguish among receivers according to scale of operations and criminal intent (Colquhoun 1800; Crapsey 1872). Jerome Hall (1952) subsequently distinguished professional dealers from other criminal receivers (for example, ”occasional” and ”lay”) by the intent to resell the stolen property and by the regularity or persistence with which they purchased stolen goods. Recently, Steffensmeier and Ulmer (2005) proposed that criminal receivers and other buyers of stolen goods may be differentiated by (1) whether they deal directly with thieves, (2) the frequency with which they purchase stolen property, (3) the scale or volume of purchases of stolen property, (4) the purpose of purchase (for personal consumption or resale), and (5) the level of commitment to purchasing stolen property.
They delineate four major groupings of criminal receivers or buyers of stolen goods, along with six more differentiated types of receivers (see Steffensmeier and Ulmer 2005, Confessions of a Dying Thief, pp. 90-96; see also Colquhoun 1800; Hall 1952; Henry 1977; Klockars 1974; Walsh 1977; Steffensmeier 1986; Cromwell, Olson, and Avary 1996; Sutton 1998). The four major groupings are as follows:
1. Amateur or ”Joe Citizen” buyers refers mainly to someone who buys stolen goods once in a while to use himself or to peddle to a friend or close acquaintances. They tend to exhibit the lowest level of commitment and experience in buying stolen goods.
2. Occasional or part-time dealers are in-between dealers, the ones who buy off and on and then peddle the goods out of their business premises, on the street, or at an auction; fencing is a sideline activity within their primary occupation or business.
3. Professional fences refers to the ”regular” or ”bigger” dealers whose buying and selling of stolen goods is ”a main part” of what they do. (Professional fences overlap so-called master fences, what Confessions of a Dying Thief characterizes as ”referral” or ”go-between” operators who do not deal directly with thieves but instead stay behind the scenes.)
4. Online buyers and sellers who fence stolen goods through websites have accompanied the rise in popularity of online auctions (such as eBay. com), a fast-growing distribution path that emerged in the late 1990s. The online trade in stolen goods overlaps the other forms of criminal receiving and is also a major avenue for ”self-fencing” stolen goods today.
The other, more differentiated types include the following:
• Referral or contact fences are ”background operators” who regularly buy stolen goods through another middleman and then resell them to other outlets, where the merchandise is then sold to the consuming public. These referral or contact fences thus do not deal directly with thieves. In a sense, referral fences are ”the fence’s fence,” or ”master fences.” Referral fences tend to be all-around criminal entrepreneurs or ”racketeers,” with extensive criminal networks. For them, fencing stolen goods is usually part of a larger criminal portfolio. They tend to have a high commitment to crime and quasi-legitimate activities, but they may not necessarily be highly committed to fencing (it may depend on the significance of fencing for their overall criminal portfolio).
• Associational fences are those whose legitimate occupations place them in close contact and interaction with thieves. Examples might include police, bail bondsmen, bartenders, or defense attorneys.
• Neighborhood hustlers are those for whom fencing is one of several ”hustles,” or small-time criminal activities. They are often as apt to buy stolen goods for personal use as for resale.
• Drug dealer fences barter drugs for stolen goods. In addition, other suppliers of illegal goods and services are also known to sometimes fence stolen goods (for example, gambling operatives, pimps, or other providers of illicit sex).
• Private buyers are merchants or collectors who deal directly with thieves, but only with a small number of select or established thieves.
• Merchant or business buyers do not deal direct with thieves but buy stolen goods from other, perhaps more professional fences or referral/ contact fences and then resell such goods to (probably unsuspecting) legitimate customers.
Fences can also be distinguished along other dimensions: first, by the kind of cover used to conceal their fencing trade— whether the trade in stolen goods is fully covered, partly covered, or uncovered by the fence’s legitimate business identity— and second, by ”product specialization”— the kinds of stolen goods they handle. At one pole is the generalist, a fence who will buy and sell virtually anything a thief offers. At the other pole is the specialist, who handles only certain kinds of goods, such as auto parts or jewelry.
Fence’s Relationship to Theft Reconsidered
The fence does play a primary role in the marketing of stolen property, but that role is often hyped by commentators and law enforcement officials as bigger and more important than it actually is, and the involvement of other participants in the illegal trade is also ignored. The old saying ”if no fences, no thieves” assumes that thieves are not autonomous or ”free” in their stealing behaviors and that the police and the public have little or nothing to do with the maintenance of a criminal system.
While thieves are supposed to be dependent on fences, at the same time they are assumed to engage in their theft activities independently of the fences, so an inherent paradox exists. If they are independently motivated to theft, then they will steal irrespective of whether or not fences exist. Furthermore, emphasizing that they depend on and could not exist without fences ignores the fact that the fence is in precisely the same position as the thief: dependent on outlets or a market for stolen property.
Frequently, this problem is resolved by the involvement of merchants who are tempted to purchase stolen goods at cheap prices so that they may sell at a higher profit. Public demand for stolen goods also helps maintain the fences. Budget-conscious consumers are often willing to buy stolen goods, ”no questions asked,” and need little encouragement. In addition, when they are victims of theft, ordinary citizens are frequently willing to forgo prosecution once their stolen goods have been restored to them or they have received compensation. In a similar way, insurance companies and private detective agencies protect fences from public or legal reaction to a theft, either by diluting the rightful owner’s desire to pursue those responsible by providing compensation or by cooperating with the owner for the return of stolen property.
Finally, the saying ”if no fences, then no thieves” ignores that official complicity of some kind is often required if the prospective fence hopes to buy and sell stolen goods regularly and for a long time (Henry 1977; Klockars 1974; Steffensmeier and Ulmer 2005). Sometimes the official protection fences enjoy is an outgrowth of the corruption of law enforcement on a large scale. Present-day fences connected to Mafia or localized syndicates, for example, may benefit from the corruption of legal authorities achieved by way of general racketeering activities. Other times, the basis of police-fence complicity stems from the operating reality that both have access to resources desired by the other. In exchange for a muted investigation, for example, a fence is able to offer the police good deals on merchandise or to act as an informer who helps police recover particularly important merchandise and arrest thieves.
Thus, the sociolegal writings on the traffic in stolen property have addressed two complicated issues. One is the fence’s role in the overall flow of stolen property from thieves to eventual consumers. The other is whether enforcement efforts should be more rationally directed at the fence than at other agents in the traffic in stolen property—thieves, occasional receivers, those to whom the fence sells, or complicitous authorities.