Criminology Fencing and Stolen Goods Markets
Michael Sutton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0219


Thieves steal particular items in order to sell them to buy whatever it is that motivates them to steal. Dealers in stolen goods (fences) function as a buffer between thieves and consumers by reducing the time a thief remains in possession of incriminating evidence, namely the items stolen, while trying to sell them. Consequently, it is widely believed that the criminological term fence most likely stems from the shortening of “defense” during the 17th century to denote a professional dealer in stolen goods, as someone who is the thief’s defense against detection by way of putting themselves in the position of so-called middleman, or dealer. The fence often operates behind a legitimate business “front” as their own proffered defense as an unwitting buyer of ill-gotten gains. Openly buying from such a trader effectively protects consumers of stolen goods from prosecution for knowingly buying stolen goods. “Stolen goods markets” is an umbrella term for specific subtypes of stolen goods outlets, identified by criminologists. Not all stolen goods markets are operated by fences. Some involve the thief selling goods directly to the public, or through an innocent third party such as an auction house or website. Thieves obviously know that stolen goods markets exist. That simple knowledge has been understood for centuries to play a general motivating role in theft, as most prolific thieves do not steal goods for their own consumption.

General Overviews

Little research has been conducted into stolen goods markets, and police pay little attention to what thieves do with stolen goods. There are few overviews considered essential reading. Henry 1978 provides introductory material. Comprehensive overviews are Sutton 1995, Sutton 2010, and Schneider 2008 (the last two cited under Tackling Markets). One should be careful not to amplify the role stolen goods markets play in theft. To be attributed with being “the,” as opposed to “a contributory” cause, the stimulus must be both a necessary and sufficient condition for an outcome. It takes more than a ready market for theft to happen. The existence of stolen goods markets may be one necessary condition for thieves to convert stolen goods into cash, but they are an insufficient condition to be referred to as “the” cause of theft. Market dynamics such as supply and demand, organizational complications and the roles of thieves, dealers, facilitators, and consumers represent neglected areas of concern. Ethnographic monographs include Klockars 1974, Steffensmeier 1986, and Foster 1990. Klockars 1974 and Steffensmeier 1986 are independent case study ethnographies with different fences in the United States. These works draw back the curtain to reveal how businesses provide a “front” that conceals trading in stolen goods and provides a seemingly legitimate facility for their purchase and retail; it is also a symbolic means for guilt neutralization among thieves and dealers that such stealing and dealing is just another part of profit making in the market-driven world of “business.” Foster’s study of offenders and their social networks in one pub in England during the 1980s provides insight into the dynamics, mores, and norms of informal markets. Klockars, Steffensmeier and Foster, like others who focus on stealing and dealing, hint at the influence of markets for stolen goods on theft levels. Works such as Henry 1978, Cromwell and McElrath 1994, Sutton 1995, Sutton 1998, and Clarke 1999 fully tackle the question of whether theft levels are driven up by demand for stolen goods. They provide a synthesis of old and contemporary knowledge about the role stolen goods markets play in motivating thieves to steal, determining theft levels, influencing the frequency of offending, and motivating the theft of particular things. Sutton 1998 and Clarke 1999 interpret theft and self-reported offending data to offer evidence-led solutions to reduce demand for stolen goods and consequential supply by theft. Clarke 1999 used his CRAVED acronym to argue that a product’s concealability, removability, availability, value, enjoyability, and disposability influence its attractiveness to offenders. Although not mentioned by Holt and Lampke 2010, many CRAVED characteristics fit stolen data marketed on the Internet. Sidebottom, et al. 2011 found disconfirming evidence for the applicability of CRAVED regarding theft of scrap metals such as copper.

  • Clarke, R. V. 1999. Hot Products: Understanding, anticipating and reducing demand for stolen goods. Police Research Series, Paper 112, Policing and Reducing Crime Unit, Research Development and Statistics Directorate. London: Home Office.

    Reveals what is likely to be stolen, the characteristics that make targets suitable for theft, and why. He explains that such characteristics change over time for some things, because thieves tend steal to convert goods into cash. What is a “hot product” at any one time may not remain so in the future. Consequently, it is a truism that high demand for something increases the likelihood of it being stolen.

  • Cromwell, Paul, and Karen McElrath. 1994. Buying stolen property: An opportunity perspective. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 31.3: 295–310.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427894031003003

    Relies upon data from a postal survey in one city in the US state of Texas. Great emphasis is placed upon the hypothetical causal notion of opportunities to buy influencing buying behavior. However, the difficulty of interpretation of the findings is explained as arising from the research team’s failure to collect data on the issue of when offers do or do not occur “out of the blue” or else as a response to any prior behavior by the purchaser.

  • Foster, J. 1990. Villains: Crime and community in the inner city. London: Routledge.

    Provides a rich ethnographic account of the importance of securing a genuine bargain at a discount price. Research subjects provide the author with explanations for their subcultural “acceptance” of stolen goods markets. The seemingly “irresistibility” of desirable stolen goods at discount process is explored in some depth.

  • Henry, Stuart. 1978. The hidden economy: The context and control of borderline crime. London: Martin Robertson.

    Provides a thoughtful introduction to the topic, along with a number of interesting and insightful rhetorical, yet critical criminological insights into the problem of stolen goods markets in commercially oriented westernized industrial societies.

  • Holt, Thomas J., and Eric Lampke. 2010. Exploring stolen data markets online: Products and market forces. Criminal Justice Studies 23.1: 33–50.

    DOI: 10.1080/14786011003634415

    Analyzing data from six web forums, this observational research article explores the dynamics of trading and purchasing stolen data on the Internet. Holt and Lampke conclude that a new and improved underworld is developing on the Internet and that future research is needed to explore the links between identity theft and stolen data markets to understand the impact of data sales on financial crime victimization.

  • Klockars, Carl. 1974. The professional fence. New York: Free Press.

    Beginning with some historical insights into the famous fence Jonathan Wild, Klockars focuses on his own research subject “Vincent Swaggi.” This case study provides the first highly detailed longitudinal ethnographic account of the career offender dynamics and difficulties involved in operating successfully as a professional fence in the 20th century. The work relies upon us accepting Swaggi’s plausible version of events as veracious.

  • Sidebottom, Aiden, Jyoti Belur, Kate Bowers, Lisa Thompson, and Shane D. Johnson. 2011. Theft on price-volatile markets: On the relationship between copper price and copper theft. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 43.3: 396–418.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427810393021

    Analyzing data provided by the British Transport Police, for 2004 to 2007 of all 2,800 incidents of copper cable theft from the railway system of England, Scotland and Wales, revealed an unsurprisingly strong correspondence between increases in copper prices and the trajectories of its theft.

  • Steffensmeier, Darrell. 1986. The Fence: In the shadow of two worlds. Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield.

    Follows a career fence over several years and explores in particular depth, his methods for evading detection by the authorities, and how his illegitimate business strategies have evolved over time. Building on the work begun by Klockars 1974, there is more triangulation in this book, as Steffensmeier seeks confirmation from other sources that claims made by his research subject are veracious.

  • Sutton, M. 1995. Supply by theft: Does the market for second-hand goods play a role in keeping crime figures high? British Journal of Criminology 25.3: 400–416.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.bjc.a048524

    This article explores the theoretically possible effects of the market for stolen goods as a causal influence upon theft and offending career decisions. Moreover, it provides a general overview of the literature on stolen goods markets.

  • Sutton, M. 1998. Handling stolen goods and theft: A market reduction approach. Research Study 178. London: Home Office.

    This British government research report includes an analysis of data from the nationally representative British Crime Survey 1994. A sample of 8,753 respondents aged sixteen to fifty-nine years, answered an original suite of self-reported offending questions on handling stolen goods. Analysis of that data is triangulated with forty-five in-depth qualitative interviews with offenders. Five subtypes of stolen goods market were identified. Based on this data, the report contains the origination of the research-led crime reduction method known as the Market Reduction Approach to theft.

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