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Tips for Unknowingly Possessing Stolen Property

Unknowingly Possessing Stolen Property

Have you ever wondered if that great deal you scored online or at a yard sale could actually be stolen goods? Unfortunately, unknowingly buying or finding stolen property happens more often than you may think. But you don’t have to unwittingly become an accessory to theft. This guide covers how to spot potentially “hot” merchandise, the steps to take if you find yourself in possession of stolen items and the legal consequences you could potentially face as a result.

What Does it Mean to Unknowingly Possess Stolen Property?

Simply put, it means you have acquired property that you didn't know was taken illegally. For example, you may have:

  • Bought a product from someone who stole it;

  • Found an item that was stolen but abandoned; or

  • Been gifted something by a friend or family member who originally stole it.

Even if your intentions are innocent, you can face criminal charges for possession of stolen property. It’s crucial to be vigilant about vetting items and sources.

What Items Are Commonly Stolen and Sold?

Some of the most common items that are sold online or in person include:

  • Electronics: Smartphones, laptops, tablets, gaming consoles, cameras and other electronic devices are often stolen and sold online due to their high resale value and ease of concealment.

  • Jewelry: Gold, silver and diamond jewelry are highly targeted by thieves due to their precious metal content and intrinsic value. These items are often sold online to avoid suspicion from physical pawn shops or jewelers.

  • Power tools: Power tools such as drills, saws and generators are frequently stolen from construction sites, garages and homeowners. Their portability and versatility make them attractive targets for theft.

  • Bicycles: Bicycles, especially high-end models, are a common target for theft due to their ease of access and resale value. Online marketplaces provide a convenient platform for thieves to sell stolen bikes.

  • Sports equipment: Golf clubs, bicycles, fishing rods, and other sports equipment are often stolen from homes, garages and storage units. Their popularity and resale value make them attractive to thieves.

  • Designer clothing and accessories: High-end designer clothing, handbags and watches are often stolen from stores and individuals. Their popularity and brand recognition make them easy to sell online.

If you find items like these online or in person and they seem too good to be true, exercise caution because they often are.

What Are the Telltale Signs of Potentially Stolen Property?

Some red flags include:

  • Prices that seem too good to be true;

  • Sellers who seem evasive or suspicious;

  • Packaging or labels that appear tampered with;

  • Items with removed, altered or defaced serial numbers; and

  • Sellers with no receipt, proof of purchase or ownership records.

If you're unsure and are interacting with the seller online, it doesn't hurt to politely ask questions to determine if an item could be stolen before purchasing. Trust your instincts if something seems off.

What Are the Legal Consequences of Unknowingly Possessing Stolen Items?

According to Wisconsin statute 943.34, knowingly possessing or concealing stolen property is a Class A misdemeanor if the value is under $2,500. If the stolen goods exceed this value, the charge becomes a felony. Harsher felony charges apply for higher-value goods.

You can be charged even if you purposefully avoided any knowledge that could lead to discovering the item is stolen. The legal principle of "conscious avoidance" (a.k.a. “willful blindness” or “deliberate ignorance”) means you can't deliberately ignore obvious warning signs that property is stolen. Deliberately failing to investigate suspicious circumstances implies knowledge, even if no one expressly said the items were stolen. So, conscious avoidance can satisfy the mental state required for possession of stolen property, even if the person does not have overt knowledge.

You Have Stolen Property. What Should You Do?

Don’t panic. If you discover you have unwittingly obtained stolen goods, take these steps:

  • Document where, when, and from whom you acquired the items;

  • Contact your local police department to report finding stolen property. Be cooperative and honest;

  • Consult an attorney to understand your rights and liabilities;

  • Follow the instructions provided by the police on what to do next with the merchandise and cooperate when they file a report; and

  • If purchased, see if you can get reimbursed from the seller, your credit card company, or payment app used.

Taking proactive steps once you realize items are stolen can help demonstrate your innocent intentions.

How Can You Protect Yourself from Unknowingly Possessing Stolen Property?

Here are some tips to avoid obtaining illegal goods:

  • Ask for proof of ownership before purchasing valuable items privately;

  • Research the seller and ask questions if they seem evasive or suspicious;

  • Buy from reputable retailers and verified vendors;

  • Keep a receipt of where and when you obtained the item;

  • Follow your instincts and don't ignore obvious red flags; and

  • For very costly items, request written verification from the seller regarding their lawful title.

Staying prudent when acquiring goods, especially from private sellers, can help safeguard against unwittingly receiving stolen items.

Trustworthy, Honest Attorneys at The Everson Law Firm

Attorneys at The Everson Law Firm have been helping northeast Wisconsinite for decades. Contact us today to learn about your rights and the best course of action if you believe you’ve mistakenly come into possession of stolen items.


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