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Online database holds the key to reining in stolen goods black market

A $12,000 tractor stolen in Macon County and sold as scrap in Georgia for a fraction of the price; rusting automobiles yanked from lawns in the middle of night; copper wiring stripped from construction sites — rising scrap metal prices and subsequent thefts have prompted a new state law to counteract an increasingly attractive black market.

But since the bill passed last summer, the efforts of lawmakers are still falling short. Many resale dealers — such as scrap metal yards and pawn shops — are operating with impunity and re-selling stolen goods.

Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland lamented the recent increase in the illegal scrap metal business, noting how the trade allows for stolen merchandise to be easily turned for a buck — and the evidence destroyed as it’s crushed or melted.

“Basically, if it’s not nailed down it’s getting stolen,” Holland said. “We have old cars that have been sitting behind old barns for 50 years with weeds and trees growing through them — and people have pulled them out with chains and gone to junk.”

The new state law requires scrap metal yards to record all the items they accept — a law that has long been in place for pawnshops. But they only have to keep hand-written records, so detectives trying to track down stolen goods and their thieves have to visit all the pawnshops and scrap yards in person to see their lists.

Still, Holland and other law enforcement agents in the region have identified a seemingly simple solution. The database LeadsOnline acts as a national registry for goods coming in to pawn shops and scrap metal yards, providing quick and much-needed leads in otherwise frustrating cases.

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Instead of keeping records by hand, all the metal yards and pawnshops have to do is enter their data into the online system instead, which can then be searched by police.

“They already have to collect that information by hand, and all we are asking is for them to take the same information they are already required to record and put it into the computer system,” Holland said.

However, it isn’t mandatory, so Holland hopes to convince the pawnshops and scrap yards in Macon County to participate voluntarily.

The Macon Sheriff’s office will soon join 2,100 law enforcement agencies nationwide that use the database, which costs $2,800 per year for a subscription for law enforcement agencies. But for businesses that deal in re-sold goods, it’s free to log in.

Holland said if voluntary compliance isn’t forthcoming, a county ordinance would be the only way to make sure all dealers were on board.

At a recent Macon County Commission meeting, Sheriff Robert Holland informed commissioners he would be subscribing to the database —— and told them that in the near future it may be beneficial to pass an ordinance requiring county businesses to participate.

“But we want to get businesses to jump on board voluntarily,” he said.

He received a lukewarm reception from commissioners, however, who are hesitant to impose further regulations on small businesses, although all they would need to participate is a computer and Internet connection.

“The effort we are undertaking is to try and protect citizens of Macon County, and surrounding counties, who are having their possessions stolen,” Holland said.


Pawn shops: friend or foe

In Waynesville, police have been using the pawnshop database for two years.

“Really what this does is it gives you the ability to electronically walk the beat rather than walking to every pawn shop and knocking on the door,” said Lt. Chris Chandler. “You can do it on the computer.”

For example, Chandler said a power tool was recently stolen from a Waynesville resident. The usual routine would have consisted of contacting each area pawnshop to review records for a serial number match. However, that method can gobble up man-hours and amount to a waste of time.

Instead, Chandler searched the online database and got a hit. The nail gun had been pawned at Alan’s Jewelry and Pawn in Asheville and the personal information of the seller could lead Chandler right to the first suspect. Case closed.

As helpful as it is, the state doesn’t have a law making it mandatory for pawnshops to enter their data into the system. And few counties or towns have such laws, although Asheville does.

Chandler hopes in the near future Waynesville and other local governments in Western North Carolina will pass similar requirements.

“In my mind there is no worthwhile excuse for not participating because it is free,” Chandler said. “It provides a wealth of information, but it’s only as good as the participation in your jurisdiction.”

For now, those who do, do it by choice. It could be some pawnshops would rather fly under the radar, knowingly dealing in the seedy underworld of stolen goods.

However Carolina Pawn and Gun shop in Canton is one of the businesses in the area that opts to participate. They have been doing it for several years.

Store manager Phil Martin said over time the people selling stolen goods learn not to come by anymore. The staff also keeps a blacklist of people who have attempted to sell stolen products.

“If someone has tried it once, we won’t take anything from them again,” Martin said. “Once you’ve established yourself as being part of this, and turning merchandise over to law enforcement, then people stay away from you.”

But Martin acknowledged that some of the store’s competition doesn’t participate. He said he couldn’t make any excuses for them because the benefits outweigh the negatives. And he said the data crunching takes him “an extra 30 seconds” per day.

“I just think that everybody should be linked to it to help out and hold down crime,” he said.

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