What happens in a stolen property dispute?
December 19, 2012 3:03 PM   Subscribe

I run a business that sells used things. Someone came in and told me one of my used things was theirs. How do I proceed?

I try to be as careful as possible, and only buy stuff from non-sketchy people, at yard sales, and so forth. In four or so years, I've never had an issue yet. I usually take an ID, but for this particular item, I just took her name and phone number (she gave me the cell phone number that she had just called from, where the caller ID that popped up on my phone was the name she gave me). I regret that, obviously.

Four weeks later, I have totally revamped the item. I originally paid $20 for it, I am selling it for $195 after putting in 5-6 hours of hard work and $25ish in supplies. A kind of crackhead-y but nice guy comes into my shop and says the item is his. His girlfriend sold off all his stuff (including multiple thousands of dollars in jewelry) while he was in prison, and he recognized it.

I told him that I was sorry, but that he'd have to file a police report and go through the proper channels. He was nice enough about it, and agreed. I don't want to look like a terrible business owner trafficking stolen goods (that's just what I need, as I'm somewhat new in town). He said maybe he'd contact his lawyer, too, and I said sure, whatever he felt like he needed to do to fix the problem, but I wasn't going to give the item back without any proof.

What do I do now? If the police come and tell me to give it to him, his $20 weather-beaten piece of crap is something he can now sell for nearly $200, and I'm out a ton of money and time - and I need that to pay my bills! I have obviously removed the item from the sales floor for now. Do I go ahead and remove the upgrades I put on it, as much as I can, just in case? (Some is easily removable, some takes time, some is just part of the piece now.) I wish I'd had the time to talk to him more - I wasn't here when he came in, my partner was, or I would have tried to see what he wanted out of the situation. I honestly would've just offered him $20 to make the issue go away if he thought that was fair.

As of now, I guess I just wait for the police? I'm assuming they'll have to make him jump through some hoops to prove the item's his and was not hers to sell - and he'll probably have to get his ex-girlfriend in quite a heap of trouble. If I do have to give the item back, do I go after the girl in small claims court? Can I ask him for the money in upgrades? I'm in MA, USA if that helps.

Someone, reassure me! If you've ever tried to get a stolen item back, what was the process like? Pawn shops and whatnot must go through this a lot, right?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is it really plausible that he recognized it, after all the upgrades you did? I bet you never see him again. And, this is a good reminder to keep your ID rule strict
posted by Fig at 3:16 PM on December 19, 2012 [14 favorites]

There is a very good chance that he's trying to scam you and so he'll never come back with a police report. I wouldn't spend a second worrying about it unless that happens.

To avoid this in the future, keep scrupulous records on who you're buying every item from, and check the seller's ID when buying. Then you can at least verify the name of the person you bought it from matches what the person claiming it was stolen from him says, and you'll know how much you paid for it and can, perhaps, offer it to him at your cost.
posted by kindall at 3:16 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

+probably a scam.

I'm in CA, not MA, but earlier today I sold a watch at a jewelry shop, and they filled out a form for the sale that said at the top "One copy to merchant, one copy to DOJ, one copy to local law enforcement". And my thumbprint went on the form.

This may be jewelry specific, it's likely CA specific, but it may be worth checking with a lawyer or local enforcement if there are any similar-type forms (or recommended best practices beyond noting IDs) for your area.
posted by colin_l at 3:20 PM on December 19, 2012

I'd maybe consider getting a lawyer on retainer or at least get a consultation to tell you what your obligations are for these kinds of issues, in case it comes up again.
posted by empath at 3:21 PM on December 19, 2012

My purely conversational, not-legal-advice, just neighbor-conversing-with-neighbor conjecture is that he won't come back with any police or legal assistance totally irrespective of whether he was trying to scam you or the item is really his.

So far it sounds like your gut sense has led you to make mostly responsible, professional decisions. You already recognize where you made a small mistake. My neighborly words at this moment would indeed be of reassurance, even if you hadn't used that term yourself. Sometimes smart folks find themselves in unanticipated and difficult circumstances, and they question themselves. In many cases they have done better than they give themselves credit for.

I'm sure if you think about it, you've seen that happen with your friends and family. Maybe remembering those situations will be helpful.
posted by cribcage at 3:28 PM on December 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

I used to work for, and run, businesses that sold used things - and high-end used things at that, like jewellery and watches and such. Antique shops, an auction house, and a small funky vintage store. I understand what you're feeling. Not only has this happened to me as a dealer, but after a bad break-up, I had to go around and buy my own items back from the local thrift store and a few antique shops. You're probably fine, and everyone above is right - this sounds like a scam.

Quite honestly, the police won't ardently pursue this. If it's jewellery, timepieces, art or electronics (and possibly bikes) there's a very, very small chance. So, you might want to take time to contact your local police's pawn squad and arrange to get their sheets to keep on top of what might come through in the future.

But I wouldn't worry. I've encountered this before. And um, I would be more concerned if he used that time to "case the joint" and figure out where your more valuable things are and look around for where you might keep your cash. There is a chance that your business has been watched, and they know who is working and when, and chose to come in when your partner was there on purpose.

Please take precautions - move small and valuable things away from the front door, hide your cash and ask around the neighbourhood if anyone else had an issue with the same person (we used to keep a Yahoo group for local business owners.) Leave lights on at night so people can see all the way in your store and call if they notice a disruption.

In our neighbourhood, we could contact your community relations officer to find out if this is something that might want to have a community policing complaint on file. I've also had people shoplift (and attempt to distract and upset me so they could) then attempt to return the items for a refund later on (themselves, or through a friend.)
posted by peagood at 3:31 PM on December 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

wait- she sold off his stuff four weeks before he got out? and how long had he been in? Yeah, sounds fishy to me. Surely if you were going to sell you'd do it earlier?
posted by titanium_geek at 3:32 PM on December 19, 2012

At the very least, I'd make sure that he brought a police report of the alleged theft by his girlfriend of his stuff, showing that he reported the item stolen. And then corroborate with the police department mentioned on the report, getting their number from another source, that the report is indeed what it claims to be.
posted by straw at 3:43 PM on December 19, 2012

This is so likely a scam, and you are way way over thinking this.

Lots of great advice above. Just letting you know how unbelievably implausible this story is. What is believable is that woman sold you the piece for $20, saw how beautiful/valuable you made it in the store window, and then concocted a story to try and get it back. Probably, drugs are involved.

If I were you, I might contact the police and ask their advice, but that is likely buying trouble you don't need.

Yes, look into retaining a lawyer for the business just in case. You could interview a few people and then call them and pay a retainer fee if something comes up in the future.

Since I'm me, I would wait a week or two. If the guy or police have not contacted me during the two week wait, I would sell the piece online and forget it.

Did the guy leave his contact info?

If so, you can pass that on to the police or an attorney.

Especially if he did not leave contact info, I would assume a scam and just wait a decent amount of time until offering the piece for sale again. I'd likely not openly display it in my shop, tho.

If you don't have a security camera - get one
posted by jbenben at 3:44 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I told him that I was sorry, but that he'd have to file a police report and go through the proper channels. He was nice enough about it, and agreed. I don't want to look like a terrible business owner trafficking stolen goods (that's just what I need, as I'm somewhat new in town). He said maybe he'd contact his lawyer, too, and I said sure, whatever he felt like he needed to do to fix the problem, but I wasn't going to give the item back without any proof.

He's going to get his lawyer involved? For a $20 piece of whatever? My bullshit detector is ringing.

Dude, he's not coming back.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:45 PM on December 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

Don't alter the item further. Don't remove what you've already done.

Just wait.
posted by jbenben at 3:46 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The sob story about the thousands $$ in lost jewelry is CLASSIC scam tactic, btw.

I'll stop now. Carry on OP. I think you are fine and did the right thing.

Please get a camera for your place of business and make sure the recorder is not in a obvious place. Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 3:49 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

That said, I had to study this in college when I was doing paralegal studies. I don't know what the law is where you live, but if the person sold it to you and you've made upgrades to it then the original owner can't get it back. It doesn't matter if the ex-girlfriend originally stole the item and sold it to you, it should legally be yours. The person he needs to be going after is her, not you.

Again, ymmv. But there's definitely specific laws concerning things like this and you should research them in your area.
posted by Autumn at 3:55 PM on December 19, 2012

That is definetaly not the case where I live Autumn so be aware YMMV. If he can prove it's stolen to the police here it won't matter how much investment you have in the object; the cops will seize it and, eventually, give it back to him. And they won't reimburse you anything; not even a storage fee. Though if it was something like a car and your investment was tires and wheels they would let you keep the wheels and tires.

Also if you haven't already at some point in your business consulted a lawyer regarding the requirements for people running second hand stores or pawn shops now would be a good time. Some places it's a legal requirement to keep specific records and you could be in trouble even if the object isn't stolen if you haven't been keeping those records.

If you are confident you are obeying the law then I'd call the police preemptively and then do what they say.
posted by Mitheral at 4:05 PM on December 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Eek, yeah. Definitely YMMV. It's probably best to consult a lawyer at this point.
posted by Autumn at 4:09 PM on December 19, 2012

doesn't sound like his claim holds water and wouldn't be surprised if as others say, he doesn't show up....but in case he does:

consider seeing a lawyer to see if what i'm about to suggest follows some sort of proper protocol

if the police contacts you, tell them that you've made upgrades to the piece- and that you are happy to submit to them a description of what the item used to look like if they'll obtain the same from the person who is claiming this. if the two match up, then and only then would you return it.

I imagine you can sufficiently show proof of what changes were made- receipts for materials bought, tools and explanation of time spent doing other stuff, in case police asks you to do this.
posted by saraindc at 4:15 PM on December 19, 2012

Wait and see what comes.

Talk with your biz neighbors and keep an eye out for more suspicious activity.

Do not contact the police. If he doesn't come back, there's no reason to contact the seller, either.

And, let's try to keep this in perspective. You're not out a "ton of time and money" -- you are out $45 ($20 for the item and $25 for your supplies). You are out 4-5 hours of your time. At $10/hour, that's $50. You will not be going to court to seek $95 in compensation from the seller. A judge wouldn't let you take more than $20, most likely, and talk about a waste of time and money that would be!

I think he's likely a scammer and you won't hear more about this.
posted by amanda at 6:20 PM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I ran a charity thrift store for 5 yrs, sounds like a scam to me. Stuff like this was pretty routine, every time the police did get involved they merely proved we were being scammed. I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by misspat at 8:11 PM on December 19, 2012

This might be a good time to try to improve/establish some reserve funds. I agree with other posters that this is probably a scam, but inadvertently accepting stolen goods, despite your precautionary procedures, is also apparently a cost of doing business that you have not heretofore incorporated into your business model.
posted by carmicha at 8:21 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're selling it for only $200, what is a lawyer going to cost you - or him, for that matter?
posted by ergo at 9:57 PM on December 19, 2012

Sounds like a scam, I'd wait it out. But if he actually does follow-up you are going to have to give it back, improvement and all. Wait for a police report though!

Your remedy for your time invested is to sue the illegitimate seller you bought from ... who shouldn't be too hard to track down, given that it was the ex-gf, and you now have a police report of an actual crime.

Bummer, huh! Next time get the ID.
posted by jannw at 4:25 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would call the police and ask them what you should do. Scam or not, after having been informed that an item might be stolen, there may be a time limit that you have to hold the item for.

But no, don't do anything until you have the police or a judge telling you you have to give it up. If it was legitimately stolen, yes, you are on the hook to give it back. What you'd have to do is recover your losses from the person who sold the item to you.
posted by gjc at 5:24 AM on December 20, 2012

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