What's a person's possible criminal liability for buying stolen items on Ebay?

I just bought a golf club on Ebay for a fantastic price. Such a good price, in fact, that the thought crossed my mind that it could have been stolen. However, while the price is low, it isn’t exactly INSANELY low, and the fact that the seller has a bricks and mortar golf store put my mind at rest that the seller isn’t exactly jumping out of a white van on the Cross Bronx Expressway to sell country club loot.

However, this does bring to mind several questions: generally speaking, what are the factors involved in determining whether someone is guilty of – or should be prosecuted for – trafficking in stolen goods?

In a marketplace like Ebay, in which prices are all over the map (folks buy things at, above, and below retail values), does that effect how vulnerable a person might be to buying stolen goods? In other words, is “I really just thought I was getting a good deal” a reasonable defense against such a charge?

And finally, does anyone have any idea how much of the goods on Ebay are stolen or counterfeit? Have there been studies on this sort of thing?

Don’t see why it should make a difference, after all, you’ve just yourself entertained the notion that good prices on eBay might mean stolen goods, just as you might if the item was being offered to you in a shady sidestreet by a bloke called Norman - if you can harbour suspicion like that, why can’t anybody else?. What’s the difference? Moreover, why should the venue grant you immunity?

In general, price on ebay is determined by what others bid. Thus, the reason you got that golf club so cheap is that it may be nobody else spotted that it was selling so cheap.

What is the cutoff point for whether you should be suspicious or not? If Target suddenly decided to decrease costs by secretly hijacking Walmart trucks and therefore sold you a stolen vacuum cleaner would you still be liable? Why not? Surely venue shouldn’t grant you immunity.

I’m surprised inadvertently buying stolen goods would be considered a crime. I would expect the worst one could expect is that you might lose the item in question. If they could prove that you were involved in a conspiracy to steal that would be a different story.

Cheapness on eBay can be due to a variety of factors, including low feedback or poor feedback for the vendor, the vendor not taking PayPal, the vendor advertising poorly (e.g., wrong spelling so searches won’t find it), a niche product not finding the right bidder(s) during the days that it’s up, and even time of day/week that the auction ends.

Of course, eBay is so large that there must be stolen goods advertised on it, but (without more evidence) a buyer would have no reason to suspect that specific goods are stolen, even if the price is low.


Receiving, concealing, possessing, buying, or transferring stolen property are typically the behaviors associated with the crimes of fencing or trafficking in stolen goods. Receiving is generally defined as a single act, while concealing, possessing, buying, and transferring are conceived of as continuing acts. Fencing or trafficking are the continuing acts of being a middleman or distributor. The crime of receiving stolen property is a specific intent crime requiring proof that the person gained control over an item, knew that the item was obtained in a criminal manner, and (at any level of intent) intended to permanently deprive the rightful owner of his or her interest in the property. Control of the property can be actual or constructive, and it’s the material fact of the item being stolen that matters, not the belief that it’s stolen. If someone hides something they think is stolen, but it is not in fact stolen, then they have not received anything stolen. The level of mens rea is lessened in this crime to include negligence because a person should know, for example, that when they get “too good” a deal on something, it’s probably stolen. This lowered culpability requirement is aimed at junk dealers and pawnbrokers.


“Knowledge that goods are stolen is an essential element of the crime of receiving stolen goods (Sanford v. State, 4 Ga. App. 449, 61 SE 741; O’Connell v. State, 55 Ga. 191), and this knowledge on the part of the accused must be proved, to warrant a conviction under the Penal Code 168 [now 26-2620] (Stripland v. State, 114 Ga. 843, 40 SE 993); but it may be inferred from circumstances ( Birdsong v. State, 120 Ga. 850, 48 SE 329; Rivers v. State, 118 Ga. 42-45, 44 SE 859), where the circumstances shown would excite suspicion in the minds of ordinarily prudent men (Cobb v. State, 76 Ga. 664; Cobb v. State, 78 Ga. 801, 2 SE 628); and ‘the rule is too well settled to be disturbed, that the possession of stolen property immediately after it is stolen puts upon the possessor the burden of proving that his was not a guilty possession.’ Daniel v. State, 65 Ga. 200; Wiley v. State, 3 Ga. App. 120 (2), 123 (59 SE 438).” Williams v. State, 16 Ga. App. 697 (6) (85 SE 973).
Buying at a price grossly less than value is a circumstance sufficient to excite suspicion and when that it shown a conviction is authorized. Pharr v. State, 26 Ga. App. 433 (106 SE 306). If it had sufficiently appeared in the evidence here that the defendant purchased oysters valued at $184 for $35, as is suggested may have been the case by the statement of his own witness, we should have no hesitancy in affirming. But it does not. For aught that appears in this record the defendant may have paid full value for the oysters. True enough, the suggestion of that is strongly refuted by his denial that he purchased any oysters from the thieves, though admitting that they came to the place where they claim to have sold them to him, that he was there and that he saw them. This circumstance, if buttressed by evidence as to the sale at a price disproportionate to value would certainly have been ample to support a conviction. If the defendant had been found in possession of the oysters shortly after they were stolen the evidence would have been enough–but that was not the case.

Whoops. I was cleaning it and it went off. I’ll try that again (if a mod wants to delete my previous post, that’d be great):

What I meant to say was, low price can be considered evidence of knowledge that the property was stolen.



Commonwealth v. Boris, 58 N.E. 2d 8, 12 (Mass. 1944) (low price paid for foodstuffs admitted as evidence that defendant knew he was acquiring stolen goods), cited in http://www.ca1.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/getopn.pl?OPINION=94-1209.01A

http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=485&invol=681 (Supreme Court case noting that low price is evidence of knowledge that property was stolen).

OTOH, if the property was sold at auction, I doubt the evidence would be very meaningful. People get bargains all the time at estate sales, police auctions and flea markets. The item might be inherited or simply found.

Exactly. As Giles pointed out, there are lots of reasons an item may go cheap on ebay. Just selling at the wrong time of the year can do it. For example, putting an item up for sale during the Easter weekend, when many potential buyers are with family rather than scouring ebay for good deals.

Gfactor has it right.
You can’t be convicted of being in possession of stolen goods unless it can be proven that you knew they were stolen. So, unless they party that you purchase the goods from tells you (or you otherwise become aware of) that the goods are stolen, you’re in the clear.
The low price factor, I suspect, would be taken on a case by case basis, so buyer beware.

We found this out the hard way when a bike that was stolen from our property showed up six months later at a rummage sale down the street. :dubious:
Subsequent talks with the police and the DA were very informative.
The guy could not be convicted of possession because he claimed he bought the bike from a local flea market. We got the bike back and the guy was never charged.

I am very interested in this thread since I am trying to sell on e-bay some items that were given to me. They were destined to be junked when the school district I taught in moved a teacher resource center to another location, and the director of the center knew I would have interest in these items, so he gave them to me instead of throwing them out. They still have unremovable tags that identify them as “Property of…” The agent who is selling them for me will try to make that clear in the description, but I fear that it may inhibit sales. Stay tuned. xo C.

Uncommon, that’s not what Gfactor said. It’s also not correct. A person who buys stolen merchandise can be prosecuted if he should have known that the merch was stolen.


‘Should have known’?
I thought my statement; “or you otherwise become aware of” covered that.
I also stated that the low price factor would/should be taken on a case by case basis. If the prosecution can make a case that the person should have known it was stolen (based on the price or any other factor) and actully prove it, then the person should be convicted. I doubt (though I have no facts) that many possession cases are prosecuted.
Like I said, my knowledge of this came from encounters with the police and the DA, regarding ‘practical’ situations.
How does someone prove what someone else ‘should’ have known???

The thing I am curious about is hwo E-Bay changes the “should have known” calculation. It is one thing to buy a $500 television for $50 out of the back of a van but on E-Bay, as others pointed out, it is quite possible to get some great deals. Absurdly low prices for a given item on E-Bay can have many legitimate causes and are not uncommon.

Could Ebay itself be prosecuted for assisting in the transaction of stolen goods?

Again, they would have to be aware of the merchandises’ status. How could they possibly keep track? Unless it was brought to their attention, (they have co-operated with authorities in the past) they can’t possibly be held liable.
If they suspect or have been made aware of stolen property then the ball’s in their court, I assume. But if they aren’t being proactive, and I’m under the impression they aren’t, then these types of sales would fly under the RADAR.
In any case, since E-bay has such compettitive bidding on just about everything, it would be nearly impossible to buy an item (in auction) for such a low price as to raise a red flag. When’s the last time you saw something on E-bay that was sold for fractions of what you could otherwise buy it for?

It happens all the time in legal cases. In the case of receiving stolen goods, an extremely low price might be found to put the buyer “on notice” that the goods were stolen. Here is an example of a Court analyzing evidence under the “knew or should have known” standard.


The standard makes the subjective objective by disregarding what the defendant knew and instead considering what the reasonably prudent person would know and do. Of course there are criticisms of this approach. http://law.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1017&context=umichlwps

Not wanting to abandon my thread, let me just pop in and thank you all for the extremely informative answers so far. I’m watching very closely.

Does anyone have any idea if Ebay has been investigated for being a marketplace for stolen or counterfeit goods? I’ve got to think that the number of DVDs and CDs available there, for example, is an invitation to ripping and burning.

It’s not E-bay that would be investigated, they don’t handle the merchandise. They merely host the means in which sellers and buyers interact.
If anyone would be investigated it might be the guy that sells new RCA 36" TV’s for $50 on the E-bay stores site or through the ‘buy it now’ option.
I don’t see how E-bay could be liable unless they had information (or strongly suspected and didn’t act) that led them to believe a fence/thief was running a business through their services.

The eBay user agreement, as you would expect, forbids trading in stolen goods:

I also believe that eBay cooperates with local police when stolen items are drown to their attention.

Here is an article that talks about states trying to regulate the ebay drop off shops.


and ebay’s response


ebay says stolen goods are unusual on the site.



but see http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1759,1240584,00.asp