Lawmakers and police agencies in Butler and Warren counties have been cracking down on pawn shops, swap shops and scrap yards in recent years with strict regulations aimed at curbing the amount of stolen merchandise flowing through those businesses.

Lawmakers and police agencies in Butler and Warren counties have been cracking down on pawn shops, swap shops and scrap yards in recent years with strict regulations aimed at curbing the amount of stolen merchandise flowing through those businesses.

But no such regulations exist for area flea markets, which have become popular venues for counterfeiters and organized retail theft rings to sell their stolen and fake goods, a Middletown Journal/Hamilton JournalNews examination found.

Middletown police were part of a taskforce that recently busted up a multi-million dollar, regional shoplifting ring that was fencing stolen goods at the Caesar’s Creek Flea Market in Clinton County. Authorities made several arrests and seized more than $250,000 in stolen and counterfeit merchandise from vendors at the flea market.

Still many area legislators and police officials told this newspaper they don’t believe slapping flea markets with a stringent set of new rules is necessary.

Monroe police said they routinely do spot checks and raid booths at Traders World Market about two or three times a year for selling counterfeit products. One of the department’s bigger busts came in 2010 when police seized more than 2,100 counterfeit NFL jerseys and more than 1,000 Fox and Monster branded shirts, hats, jewelry and decals.

Homer added that some major manufacturers hire private investigators who also comb flea markets looking for possible knock-off goods. If they find any, the investigators contact police to make the arrests and confiscate the goods.

“I’m not big on passing legislation to cover every nook and cranny,” Monroe police Chief Greg Homer said. “We have enough laws there that need to be enforced.”

Lawmakers in cities such as Middletown have passed ordinances aimed at limiting the amount of stolen items being sold in swap shops, pawn shops and secondhand stores. In addition to obtaining a permit from the city, these Middletown business must also keep accurate daily records of all transactions, including brand names, dates, serial numbers, model numbers, the amount of the purchase and the name, address, age and license number of the person who sold the item.

They must also retain all purchases for at least 72 hours before offering them for resale and operate a functional video surveillance system that tapes all transactions in the business.

State and local regulations aimed at curtailing the sale of illegally obtained scrap material such as copper require scrap yards to record seller’s driver’s licenses, the vehicle’s license plate and a description of the material being sold.

But many area officials said trying to put similar rules in place for flea markets would be a bad idea.

“I’m not sure how you’d regulate this to put a dent in stolen or counterfeit goods,” said Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell. “Without some meaningful way to stop this activity, all you’re doing is adding another layer of government bureaucracy on people.”

State Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Twp., said he feels the requirement to obtain a vendor’s license and to register with the state taxation department to collect sales tax was enough regulation for flea market operators. And despite the recent raid at Caesar’s Creek, Coley said he’s never received any calls from people complaining about the flea markets.

“It’s not a problem, and we don’t need to use the heavy hand of government,” Coley said. “I think people have fun going to flea markets.”

About 150 million people visit the nation’s 1,100 flea markets annually, according to the National Flea Market Association. And the country’s 2.25 million vendors conduct more than $30 billion in annual sales, according to the association.

Homer, of the Monroe Police Department, said more regulation might be overkill, especially since not every vendor is selling stolen goods.

“We have lots of people selling from the back of their trucks like a garage sale,” he said.

State Rep. Tim Derrickson, R-Hanover Twp., whose district covers the Butler County side of Monroe, said, “The question is how or who are we penalizing?”

Derrickson said a more effective alternative might be to increase the penalties for this type of theft.

Flea markets already regulated

Jay Frick, manager of Traders World in Monroe, said flea markets are no different than shopping centers and vendors follow the various regulations and pay taxes due. Traders World, which opened in 1984, has more than 1,200 indoor and outdoor vendor spaces and attracts between 8,000 and 10,000 customers each weekend, according to its website.

“These are small businesses who go to great lengths to take care of their customers,” he said. “They treat the shoppers like they were kings and queens…. It’s a wonderful thing that we have many retirees who do this as a hobby and make it into a small business. This is what America was built on.”

Frick said shoppers enjoy coming out to the flea market and families love it because it provides an opportunity for them to do something together.

Traders World, Caesar’s Creek and Treasure Aisles Flea Market in Monroe all have a list of rules and regulations for vendors to follow in order to operate their businesses.

Greg Dove, owner of Treasure Aisles and Caesar’s Creek flea markets, said his business is just like any other and doesn’t want to be singled out.

“We get painted with broad strokes,” Dove said. “We’re a bastion of entrepreneurship where a person can start a small business with little capital….Flea markets are small market business incubators and most of them are small mom-and-pop businesses.”

He said vendors who have permanent stalls are responsible for having the proper licensing and collecting sales tax.

Dove said that flea markets support strong laws against shoplifting. He also said the National Retail Federation and other “big box” retailers have been pushing legislation in Washington to strengthen organize retail crime laws and exempt flea markets from selling certain items. Dove said the big-box retailers see the flea markets as competition to them and only want them to sell certain small products.

“We want to play on the same even playing field,” he said.

Dove said one of five vendors arrested in the recent theft ring bust operated two stalls at Caesar Creek and another vendor was evicted from the flea market because some of his employees were part of the ring.

“These are small family businesses and occasionally there’s a bad egg,” he said.

Matt Nolan, deputy Warren County Auditor, said a vendor’s license “establishes a business’ footprint in the county.”

Nolan said the license costs $25 and is basically a way for the county and the state to have contact information on the business owners.

While the county makes sure the businesses have a vendor’s license, Nolan said the flea market vendors and any sales taxes collected are sent to the state, which then gets redistributed to various entities. Any income tax due is paid directly to the city of Monroe.

“Enforcement and sales tax collection is done by the state,” he said.


©2013 the Hamilton JournalNews (Hamilton, Ohio)

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