The fence is able to make a profit with stolen merchandise because he is able to pay thieves a very low price for stolen goods. Thieves agree to this because their alternatives may present a greater risk of the thief being caught. As well, selling stolen goods takes a great deal of time and effort (transaction costs), as the thief would have to try to contact a number of potential buyers and show them the merchandise. Some habitual thieves are so well known to police that if the thief were to attempt to sell any used goods, this would quickly draw the attention of the police.
The fence then disguises the stolen nature of the goods, if possible, so that he or she can sell them closer to the market price. Depending on the stolen item, the fence may attempt to remove, deface, or replace serial numbers on the stolen item before reselling it. In some cases, fences will transport the stolen items to a different city to sell them, because this lessens the likelihood that the items will be recognized. For some types of stolen goods, fences disassemble the good and sell the individual parts, because the sale of parts is less risky. For example, a stolen car or bicycle may be disassembled so that the parts can be sold individually. Another tactic used by some fences is to retain stolen items for some time before selling them, which lessens the likelihood that the burglary victims or police will be actively looking for the items in auctions and pawnshops.
Fencing is often conducted through legal businesses. Some fences maintain a legitimate-seeming "front" through which they can sell stolen merchandise. Depending on the type of stolen merchandise a fence deals in, "front" businesses might be discount stores, used goods stores, a coin and gem store, auction house, flea market, or auto salvage yards. The degree of illicit activity in each "front" business may differ from fence to fence. While one fence's salvage yard may consist mainly of stolen auto parts, another fence's used goods store might consist mainly of legitimately purchased used goods, with the stolen merchandise acting as a minor, but profitable, sideline.
The prices fences pay thieves typically depend both on norms and on legitimate market rates for the items in question. Vulnerable sellers, such as drug addicts or casual thieves, may receive less than 20% of an item's value. Higher prices, sometimes as high as 50% of an item's value in a legal market, can be commanded by a professional thief, especially one who concentrates on valuable items. At the same time, fences will often take advantage of thieves by deceiving them about the value of an individual item and the relevant market conditions. For example, a fence may falsely tell a small-time thief that the market for the type of good which the thief is selling is flooded with this type of merchandise, to justify paying out a lower price.
Research on fences shows that they view themselves as entrepreneurs, relying on networking with and patronage by prominent criminals to become successful in their word-of-mouth-based "wheeling and dealing". They occupy the middle ground between the criminal world (thieves, burglars and shoplifters) and the legitimate world (e.g., everyday people who purchase used goods). Some active fences go farther in their business, maintaining longstanding contacts and even teaching thieves how to practice their craft, whether by identifying specific products or by teaching them tools of the trade.
There are a number of different types of fences. One way of categorizing fences is by the type of good in which they trade, such as jewels, power tools, or electronics. Another way of categorizing fences is by their level of involvement in buying and selling stolen goods; for some, fencing is an occasional "sideline" activity, while it is an economic mainstay for others. At the lowest level, a hustler or drug dealer may occasionally accept stolen goods. At the highest level would be a fence whose main criminal income comes from buying and selling stolen items. At the broadest level, two tiers of fences can be distinguished. The lower level of fences are those who directly buy stolen goods from thieves and burglars. At a higher level are the "master fences", who do not deal with street-level thieves, but only with other fences.
The degree to which the purchasers of the stolen goods know or suspect that the items are stolen varies. If a purchaser buys a high-quality item for a low price, in cash, from a stranger at a bar or from the back of a van, there is a higher likelihood that the items may be stolen. On the other hand, if a purchaser buys the same high-quality item for the standard retail price from a used goods store, and obtains a proper receipt, the purchaser may reasonably believe that the item is not stolen (even if, in fact, it is a stolen item).
The fence, or receiver, is an old kind of criminal, historically attested in many countries and with deep and complex dynamics within society.
Receiving was a widespread crime in Modern England and an increasingly crucial concern for the English government of that period. It involved many other kinds of activities and crimes, and it saw its peak in the early 18th century with the notorious Jonathan Wild. Receiving is intrinsically connected to theft, as receivers, by definition, buy previously stolen goods in order to make profit out of them later. When organised theft grew increasingly important in London thanks to largely supportive receivers, the establishment started to fight it off with new laws, often aimed at receivers: receiving was acknowledged as the very core of property crime.
Receiving was not considered as a felony (crime) in common law until 1691, when fences became potential targets of charges as accessories to theft. This meant that in order to judge a suspected receiver, it was necessary to condemn the related thief first. Later laws further focused on receivers, especially the 1718 Transportation Act, which, together with other measures, made fences main felons and not simply accessories to other felonies. Nonetheless, it was not easy to prove that a dealer knowingly accepted stolen goods, especially without the related theft event being fully cleared out. Proceedings stored in the Old Bailey Online archive where the offence category is receiving are 5664. Of these, 1973 have a verdict category of guilty.
The 1718 Transportation Act also made a felony of returning goods for a fee, revealing that by then, receiving had already been widely taken to the next stage: returning goods to their owner, for a fee, instead of selling them in the second-hand market. Thieves could act as go-betweens themselves, but go-betweens could raise some suspicions, while relying on receivers added a safety layer against effective prosecution. Victims of theft were often willing to pay, in order to get back their goods without further troubles. In addition to that, for many centuries, prosecution in England was entirely at the expense (of personal money, time and effort) of the prosecutor. Therefore, also considering the difficulty of actually prove receiving in courts, common people, especially shopkeepers, often preferred compounding, feeling that prosecuting was not worth it. This gave a considerable advantage to receivers.
In order to effectively act as go-betweens for compounding, or brokers, fences needed to personally know thieves or have ways to easily interact and bargain with them for a common benefit about compounding: nobody was in a better position to do so than thief-takers. Thief-takers grew increasingly notorious in England as a reward was introduced by the Crown for each successfully condemned criminal. Some of them, such as Anthony Dunn, publicly referred to as "pretended Thiefe-taker" in a 1707 document, used their social power as thief-takers as an advantage for receiving. Thief-takers were usually so involved with thieves and gangs of thieves that they could easily condemn them for the reward, or use this power to intimidate and command thieves to do their biddings: in exchange of clemency or protection from capture or condemnation, they could have thieves to steal under their command. Indeed, thief-takers could act as direct instigators, supporting their thieves with intelligence or offering them shelter at need (when convenient), and then act as receivers with the stolen goods. Through parallel occupations, receivers could feed their own business.
Confirmation of how thief-taking and receiving were tightly connected could be seen in the career of Charles Hitchen, who was known as a thief-taker. He bought off the position of Under City Marshal through his wife's money in order to have one of the best positions amongst the thief-takers of the City. However, a vast part of his income actually came from the receiving activity related to the network of connections with London's underworld. Hitchen controlled this network through his official (that is to say, legal) position as a thief-taker.
The synergy between receiving, theft and corruption, as well as official activities such as thief-taking or pawnbroking was a huge dynamic bond where each element enhanced the others in a vicious circle.
The master of this powerful synergy of London underworld was Jonathan Wild, who rapidly replaced his previous master, Charles Hitchen, in 1713, and rapidly gained control of London's crime and the title of "thief-taker general". His power was due to his ruthless thief-taking and intimidation activities as well as a complex web of intelligence also built around the diffusion of newspapers. However, overly bold receiving was his undoing, as it grew so large and complex a matter to prompt the English government to promote further laws against receiving and related activities, such as the Transportation Act in 1718, also known as "Jonathan Wild Act", and its extension in 1720, which made returning goods for a fee a felony of the same importance and punishment as the crime (theft) related to the goods returned (which meant a capital offence in most cases, with raised potential reward for definitive evidence, from £40 to £140). Eventually, the government decided to directly take action against Wild through lawyers, succeeding in condemning and executing him in 1725.
There is no registered case of female fences of the same fame of Wild or Hitchen. However, women had active roles in both receiving and theft. Elizabeth Hitchen, Hitchen's wife, gave her inheritance money to her husband in order to buy the Under City Marshal office for his plans. Moreover, women could be also active fences. For example, Elizabeth Fisher managed her own receiving business in her husband's alehouse. Proceedings stored in the Old Bailey Online archive where the offence category is receiving are 5664. Of these, 2187 have a defendant gender category of female.
Receiving grew increasingly important in Early Modern society, and combined with the increasing interest of society on reading, it became the source for many writers, such as Daniel Defoe, with Moll Flanders and John Gay, with The Beggar's Opera. These works reflect how receiving was conceived and portrayed by authors.
Moll Flanders is a novel intended to narrate the whole life of its protagonist, referred to as Moll Flanders, but a relevant part of it is about her becoming a master thief. Moll's activity as a thief largely relied on the protection and support of her governess, who acted also as a receiver for the goods stolen by her affiliates. She is the one who buys Moll's stolen goods the first time, as Moll narrates "I was now at a loss for a market for my goods,[...] At last I resolved to go to my old governess." Therefore, the governess character sealed Moll's fate as a thief, and eventually taught her the basics of thievery redirecting Moll to work with other senior thieves. With these events, Defoe shows how crucial as well as subtle receiving was in building the whole of crime activity in London.
The Governess is officially a pawnbroker, and she uses this legal business to recycle stolen goods into the secondary market. Sometimes, such as in the case of a silver inscribed mug stolen by Moll, she smelts metals, in order to avoid getting caught while re-selling. Along with receiving activity, she actively protects and support many criminals and thieves in order to secure a steady income to her activity.
The same governess goes on in protecting and offering refuge to her affiliates whenever possible, or recruiting thieves into small groups, always via middlemen, in order to protect their thieves' identities in case some of them were caught and willing to confess.
She is also a main intelligence source and often a direct instigator to theft such as in a case of fire in a well-off house in the neighbourhood (more vulnerable to theft because of the sudden emergency), and finally becomes a broker for goods stolen by Moll to a drunken gentleman. In that case, the amount gained is allegedly greater than what she would have gained by standard re-selling in the secondary market.
The Governess embodies female social cunning in London's underworld, from Defoe's point of view. She is a typical receiver of her time, and whereas many male receivers used thief-taking as an official business, she relies on pawnbroking.
Fencing is illegal almost everywhere, usually under a similar rationale as in the United States, where receipt of stolen property is a crime in every state, as well as a federal crime if the property crossed a state line. Occasionally federal agents will temporarily set up a false fence sting operation. Fencing is a common source of income for organized crime. In England and Wales, as in many U.S. states, the crime requires three elements: stolen property, the receiver's act of receiving or hiding it, and his knowledge of its stolen status.
Pawnbrokers have often been associated with fencing, though in many jurisdictions, government identification must be shown in order to pawn an item and police regularly check pawnshops for stolen goods and repossess any stolen items. While pawnbrokers do not like this characterization of their business, police efforts have indicated that some pawnbrokers are involved in fencing. Money laundering could be described as the fencing of currency.
E-fencing is the sale of stolen or shoplifted items on the Internet, an activity that thieves often mix with sales to pawnbrokers. The auction website eBay, being easy to reach for the average thief, is a popular location for e-fencing; customers reported more than eight thousand crimes from the website in 2008, many of which involved the sale of stolen property. Classified websites like Craigslist, AutoTrader.com, Pennysaver online, etc. are one of the few internet sources used for fencing goods online and circumventing the middleman fencer. Crime rings steal in-demand items from retailers and then sell them online, relying on the Internet's ability to reach buyers around the world and its anonymity; some theft rings even take pre-orders, confident they can steal what's in demand. In the United States, major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target have advocated for federal legislation to combat Internet fencing. Proposals for such legislation have often proposed requiring major sales websites (e.g. eBay and Amazon.com) to retain some items' serial numbers and to release information to retailers about major sellers whom the retailers believe to be relying on stolen property. Such proposals have been opposed by the online retailers who would be required to maintain these records and take these actions.
An eBay spokesman has stated, "Perhaps the dumbest place to try to fence stolen materials is on eBay," and news agencies have reported incidents of the police purchasing stolen property directly from thieves, leading to their capture. By early 2007, e-fencing had become a $37 billion business.