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Deals so good, they're a steal -- literally Police get help to sell unclaimed property

Say a homeowner wakes up to find a bicycle dumped on her lawn. She calls the police to come get it, but its owner is never found. Maybe a burglar is caught and a gold mine of loot is recovered. Or perhaps an iPod is seized in a drug raid.

Western New York police departments accumulate a motley collection of orphaned goods.

Before the Internet age, stolen property and other goods for which ownership couldn't be established would sit in a dusty property room, trotted out once a year for sparsely attended police auctions, and sold for peanuts.

Today, with the advent of police auction Web sites such as PropertyRoom.com, many local departments contract the process to a third party.

"It takes away a lot of the legwork and expense for us," said Lt. Nicholas Bado of the Town of Tonawanda Police Department. He said auctions "used to take a lot of manpower. It was complicated and took a lot of time and effort."

Now, he said, officers simply place stickers on the goods, fill out some paperwork, and call for a pickup.

"Bang, it's gone," Bado said. "And we get a check in the mail."

Merchandise is collected by truck from 1,300 police departments across the country, including those in Cheektowaga, Lancaster, Lockport, the Town of Tonawanda and Hamburg.

PropertyRoom.com tags, inventories and photographs the merchandise. Items are tested out before they're sold to ensure they are in working order. If testing isn't practical, the merchandise is sold as is, and marked appropriately.

It is then put up for auction much the same as it would be on eBay.

The site sets a starting bid and time limit, with most items spending about a week up for auction before the highest bidder wins the lot.

Items are commonly placed for bids in "no reserve" auctions. That means, whether it is a Rolex watch or a Ford Crown Victoria, the highest bidder takes all, even if the bid never reaches above $1. Fortunately for local police departments, that is rarely the case.

Proceeds from all sales are split 5 0/5 0 between PropertyRoom.com and the police department. For larger sales, the police department gets 75 percent of the amount exceeding $1,000.

Bado said the department receives about $75 to $150 in proceeds each month, which goes into the town's accounting and planning fund.

"The higher the bid, the bigger the profit, the more money that goes back to citizens," said P.J. Bellomo, chief executive officer of PropertyRoom.com. "It's a win-win for everybody involved."
Both Bellomo and Bado agree the online auction process is far more profitable than traditional auction methods.

"We get 20,000 visitors on our site a day. These police departments were lucky to hold an auction once a year, and they wouldn't get anywhere near an audience of 20,000," Bellomo said.

Headquartered in Mission Viejo, Calif., the roughly 65-employee company has warehouses in New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla.

Founded by a Long Beach, N.Y., detective, PropertyRoom.com's advisory board is staffed almost exclusively by law enforcement types, including former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates.

The company also runs a "steal it back" program, which works to reunite victims of theft with their possessions. Victims, or people who have simply lost things that ended up in the hands of police, can enter serial numbers into the site's registry, and PropertyRoom will check merchandise against each registry before it is placed for auction. Even if an item is already up for sale, the company will work to return it. The company has returned several things so far, including tombstones, rings and guitars.

Bellomo said the possibly illicit origin of the goods doesn't act as a deterrent for potential buyers. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

"It seems people get a thrill out of doing something that's kind of naughty," Bellomo said. "They feel like they're buying stolen goods and getting away with it."

Though local police departments collect far more bicycles than any other item, PropertyRoom.com has offered some pretty unique lots: a dentist chair, a prosthetic leg, a coffin gurney.

Bellomo is unfazed.

He quotes a colleague: "I've learned two things in this business. No. 1, people will steal anything. And No. 2, people will buy anything."

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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