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Pawn Shops Forced to Join Digital Age

By Alisa Hauser | October 18, 2012 12:03pm

CHICAGO — The city's pawn shops will have put their paper ledgers into hock, under a new mandate to force all dealers to record their transactions online.

Starting this week, all Cook County pawnbrokers and secondhand dealers are under orders by the Chicago Police Department and Business Affairs Commissioner Rosemary Krimbel to transition to the digital age in a bid to help police track down stolen items more quickly and target shops that purchase stolen goods.

The Texas-based private investigation website LeadsOnline, which was awarded a $119,988 yearly contact with CPD in 2010, is now in charge of overseeing the daily transaction logs from city pawn shops and secondhand dealers, officials said.

The previous system of tracking down stolen goods was overseen by Detective William Hilbring of  the CPD's pawn shop investigation unit. It was not immediately clear what role Det. Hilbring would have under the new plan. He declined to comment.

Critics said the changes might not deter crime, and could expose customers to privacy concerns.

"If you're doing this to eliminate the bad guys, the bad guys aren't going to use this system. They're going to be selling at the flea markets, out of their garages and cars," said a Wicker Park pawn shop owner who asked that his name not be used.

Illinois Pawnbrokers Association President David Schoeneman said that his organization initially endorsed the usage of LeadsOnline, but said that his organization had since raised concerns about data mining and customer privacy.

"Before they had in place certain measures that would prevent profiling [of customers]," Schoeneman said. "It used to be that a search could only be done if there was a specific case and a law enforcement officer was looking for that specific case. Now they do not have that safeguard."

LeadsOnline officials declined to discuss concerns about privacy. But a spokeswoman said that the additional access to information would be a boon to police work.

"Things could take six months to two years to get recovered because someone would be entering in paper tickets. [LeadsOnline] streamlines operations for the businesses because everything is electronically submitted at the end of the day. It's a much a quicker process," LeadsOnline spokeswoman Lindsay Williams said.

Williams referenced a June 2011 case, when the identity of a Highland Park rapist was discovered after he sold the victim's designer watch at a Chicago pawn shop.

Aurora Police Commander Paul Nelson, who started using the online system last June, saw immediate results. Prior to mandating digital compliance, the city of Aurora was requiring pawn shops and secondhand dealers to drop off a daily, and then weekly, report which he said was "impractical."

"The majority of shops in town completely ignored the ordinance and there was no enforcement of it. Now we have 24/7 access to records. If detectives want to look at transactions at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night they can do that," Nelson said.

Recently, Nelson said that one of his detectives recovered a pistol stolen from a burglary in Ohio because of the software.

Illinois Legal Aid attorney Jonathan Tabor said he was concerned that pawn shop customers' identities might not be protected.

"The fear is they may not be adequately informed that they are part of a national database. It could expose them or their families to unnecessary embarrassment. Will customers be properly informed that they are ... giving away their information? It sounds like it could be problematic," Tabor said, adding that some people might be embarassed if others discovered they were pawning their belongings.

Nelson disagrees. 

"[Pawning] is no different than a garage sale. There is no more stigma. Look at reality shows like Pawn Stars."