fence | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

In the context of crime, a fence is a person or business that knowingly buys stolen goods for resale at a profit.

Fencing, in the context of crime, isn’t about swords or backyard boundaries. It’s about the buying and selling of stolen goods. This practice is widespread and plays a major role in criminal enterprises. Let’s delve deeper into what fencing involves and why it’s a significant aspect of criminal activity.

How Fencing Works

The process is quite simple on the surface. A fence buys stolen goods from a thief, typically at a low cost. They then turn around and sell those goods for a profit. The items sold can be anything stolen – from electronics and jewelry to cars and fine art.

The Size and Scope of Fencing Operations

These operations come in all sizes and degrees of complexity. Some are small-time “mom and pop” operations. These are often individuals who might purchase stolen goods without asking too many questions. They may then sell these items at flea markets, through classified ads, or even from their homes.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have larger, more organized operations. These can be part of organized crime networks with systematic methods for buying and selling stolen goods. They might even operate seemingly legitimate businesses, such as pawn shops or online stores, to move their illicit inventory.

Fencing and Organized Crime

This plays a critical role in organized crime. By providing a ready market for stolen goods, they enable thieves to quickly turn their loot into cash. This immediate payoff can incentivize theft and other property crimes.

Organized crime groups often rely on these to help maintain their operations. Fences provide a steady source of income for these groups, allowing them to fund their other criminal activities.

The Legal Consequences

Buying and selling stolen goods isn’t just unethical – it’s illegal. Fences can face serious criminal charges. These include receiving stolen property or possession of stolen property.

In some cases, fences may also face charges related to the original theft. This is because their actions can facilitate and encourage theft. By creating a market for stolen goods, fences can be seen as accessories to the crime.

However, the specific charges and penalties can vary widely. It depends on the jurisdiction, the value of the stolen goods, and the fence’s level of involvement in the crime.

Efforts to Combat Fencing

Law enforcement agencies work hard to tackle fencing. This can involve undercover operations, where officers pose as thieves selling stolen goods. It may also involve tracking stolen items online or monitoring suspicious activity at pawn shops.

There’s also a role for consumers to play in combating fencing. By being wary of deals that seem too good to be true and by refusing to buy goods we suspect may be stolen, we can help to reduce the market for fenced items.


Fencing is a significant component of the criminal world. Whether it’s a small-time operation or a large, organized network, fencing fuels property crime by providing a profitable outlet for stolen goods. Understanding the role of fences in crime helps us see the broader picture of how theft and property crime operates. It also underscores the importance of ethical purchasing decisions in limiting the market for stolen items. By making wise choices, we can contribute to reducing the incentive for theft and ultimately help to reduce crime.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/19/2023

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