In 11 years of operating a Greensburg, Pa., pawn shop, Ashley Nicklaus prides herself on the good relationships she has built with police who occasionally call when they suspect customers may be selling stolen merchandise.
When her license to buy and sell gold, silver and precious metals at Pawn & Jewelry Exchange on East Pittsburgh Street changed to require her to enter those transactions and information about sellers into a regional database, she and other gold buyers around the region complied. But as the database’s founder works on plans to expand its reach, Nicklaus said its adoption by local police is lagging.
“If it’s used in the right way, it can be a great tool,” said Nicklaus, who also uses a separate program to track goods coming and going from her shop. “But I haven’t come across any law enforcement agency that has access to it or uses it. … I’m still getting police officers calling in asking me to check my own database.”
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. spearheaded the creation of PAPreciousMetals.com in 2015. Licensed dealers in gold, silver, platinum and other precious metals are required to upload photos and descriptions of merchandise people sell them, along with information on the seller. Investigators, in theory, can check the database for jewelry reported stolen and track it to whomever sold it.
The regional database was established under state law that gives sheriffs the authority to license and regulate businesses that buy and sell precious metals and jewels. It covers businesses in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland counties.
A grant from Zappala’s office, used to launch and operate the database for its first year, expires Dec. 31.
Westmoreland County commissioners this month added $200 to the annual $50 fee paid by 52 precious-metal dealers here to support the multi-county database.
Allegheny County passed a similar fee hike on its 125 dealers in December, raising nearly $10,000, Zappala said.
He did not rule out using more grant money from his office if fees are not enough to cover costs for the database.
“We’ll look at the effectiveness of the program. And, if the program continues to operate, we’ll find the money to get it done,” he said.
On the surface, Zappala said it appeared to be accomplishing its goal of helping to tackle the issue of stolen jewelry being fenced across county lines.
Instead of visiting individual shops to go over paper records or check recent acquisitions, investigators and insurers can check the database to see who is selling what – usually drug addicts fencing personal items or stolen goods not far from where they were taken, Zappala said.
“Within 24 hours, you have the transaction in the system,” he said. “On paper, if you say ‘gold chain’ or ‘class ring,’ that doesn’t help me. But having the seller’s (identification) in the database and pictures of the merchandise, that gives you all kinds of tools you didn’t have before.
“It’s been a success, and we’re looking to expand it.”
Zappala said he would like to establish a way for the public to be able to search the database and notify police if they see that someone has pawned or sold their stolen property.
About 1,000 officers in 16 Western Pennsylvania counties have signed up to use the system, Zappala said. Other agencies in York County, parts of Virginia and Ohio also have used the system, and Zappala hopes to expand it to counties in the central and eastern parts of the state.
Store owners say they would rather see more local police use the database and enforce compliance from all stores to keep it fair.
“(Police) will still come in here and do inquiries, even though I’m putting it online,” said Rachelle Timarac, manager at GoldNGals on Freeport Road in Natrona Heights. “I’m telling them about the website. … It’s better than them coming into the store when I have customers here.”
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