EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — A Vineland man who was repeatedly selling large amounts of allegedly stolen women’s jewelry to secondhand precious-metal stores went unnoticed by all — except by local police detectives.
The potential criminal activity was identified through the instant reporting of such transactions through a computerized system that was implemented in Egg Harbor Township in November.
Police began using the Regional Automated Property Information Database, or RAPID, to help investigate a growing number of property thefts, police Capt. Christopher Ruef said. Rather than spending hours flipping through paper transaction records, detectives now can spend those hours solving the cases.
Mark Hubbard, 53, who was arrested earlier this year and charged with multiple thefts, was allegedly stealing from a Vineland residence to which he had access. Color photos of the jewelry available through RAPID enabled authorities to accurately identify the correct owner, Vineland police Detective Richard Burke said. The discovery linked Hubbard to an ongoing civil case, and he is now banned from the residence, Burke said.
This is just one example of how police statewide can use the system that was designed with the priority of solving property thefts.
Vineland, Atlantic City and Pleasantville are also looking into implementing the program, which Lower Township is already using. State Police are considering statewide implementation, although no legislative action has been taken. Data on the effectiveness of the system in Egg Harbor Township so far were not available.
For decades, South Jersey police departments have had to review paper records of transactions to track sales of second-hand items and jewelry to pawn shops and second-hand stores, which are used frequently by thieves to sell stolen property, police said. It was a time-consuming system for detectives to review transactions on a weekly basis; it was easy for stolen items to go untracked.
“You had to hope you would remember an item that was reported missing,” Cherry Hill police Detective Mike Buehler said.
“We were all banging our heads against the wall trying to get all these pawn shops together,” Buehler said. Selling precious metals is an “easy way to flip jewelry,” and such sales were made more lucrative when the price of gold increased significantly a few years ago.
Only recently have towns considered an automated process, dramatically cutting down the time between when a stolen item is fenced and when police can see the sales transaction. That speed has become critical as the number of second-hand and jewelry shops has grown since the start of the recession.
Egg Harbor Township and Cherry Hill have seen a significant increase in second-hand precious-metal stores, commonly seen with “Cash for Gold” signs, after the economy crashed in 2008. Cherry Hill saw a growth from five to 27 stores in the past four years. Egg Harbor Township now has seven stores, a growth in the past year from five.
Township police Detective Heath Per had been trying to garner support for the program for years, soon after he noticed the spike in second-hand activity. He succeeded in doing so last summer after inviting various agencies, including Cherry Hill, to a meeting to demonstrate and discuss a technology-based method. Having done the research for years, Per decided on RAPID, which began in Baltimore and saw almost immediate success, he said.
“It’s not a substitute for people, but it helps” quicken the process, Ruef said.
The cost of the system is $250 per business. Ruef said Egg Harbor Township covered implementation costs for five businesses in the township, but any new businesses will likely pay for the system through a proposed $500 annual mercantile-license fee to pay for the equipment, implementation and ongoing costs.
The system works with a digital snapshot via webcam of items sold. The photo is attached to the transaction record in RAPID, which includes detailed information about each seller. The information is stored in a database and run against national crime databases for potential matches. These “hits” are then reviewed by detectives, and if a match is found, it helps advance a case.
Police and some business owners agree on the benefits of the new system in curtailing unsolved property thefts, but some shop owners are not entirely happy.
An Atlantic City shop owner, Igor Chernyavskiy, said that if the state or city enacts laws to formalize the transaction process, such as taking pictures or using fingerprints, it will hurt business. With competition increasing abroad and the price of gold now decreasing, the declining number of sellers would create an even greater loss of business, he said.
“If they make it hard to stay profitable, (the business) will go underground,” he said.
People in tough spots usually commit the crimes, so if they do it once, they will just continue to do it until they get caught, Chernyavskiy said. If they know they are being tracked, they “would buy a bus ticket and go to Delaware or something.”
Though the past four years have seen an increase in activity, the value of gold is slowly decreasing — a point that frustrates police detectives and shop owners.
Both Per and Buehler said if the system had been approved earlier, more theft cases could have been solved at the height of the gold bubble.
Because of the decrease, Chernyavskiy said, it is pointless to install a more efficient program, because the volume of transactions is not what it used to be.
In 2011, RAPID reported the use of the program by 130 agencies nationwide recording 642 arrests, 882 cases closed and about $5.2 million in recovered stolen property, according to information from the Maryland Governor’s Office.
The program began in Baltimore in 2009 and has since been implemented in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, California and Florida. It is not the only such program, however it is the one being considered for New Jersey.
Another threat to the business is mail transactions to international brokers. If more stringent laws and tracking are put into place, it will drive down local business and send the metal business abroad, Chernyavskiy said.
Current state laws are more lax than local laws, which require longer hold times and require detailed information gathering on the seller.
Contact Anjalee Khemlani:
Follow @AnjKhem on Twitter