How selling used games marks you as a potential criminal

Ten states and the District of Columbia legally require businesses to meticulously detail the used gaming habits of their customers and share that information with police.

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Identified by eye color, hair color, height and weight. Then fingerprinted, mug shot taken, an affidavit signed. You've likely just been processed through the justice system as a suspect in a crime. Then again, maybe you just sold a copy of Madden NFL 2009 at your local video game shop.

There's still nothing illegal about selling used video games, but in some states the steps you have to take to sell your old copies of Playstation, Xbox and Wii titles may make you feel like you've broken the law.

Ten states and the District of Columbia legally require businesses to meticulously detail the used gaming habits of their customers and share that information with police. The application of secondhand goods laws to video games also requires stores in many of those states to separate used games in a special area, filing them away by customer name and holding those games as potential evidence in a crime for as long as 30 days.


Secondhand Goods laws can be created at the city, county or state level. Currently Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Utah and Washington state include video games as items that need to be tracked and reported to police. Many counties and municipalities also have secondhand goods ordinances that apply to purchases of used video games. That means that stores like Best Buy, Target, Play N Trade and GameStop now find themselves asking employees in some states to collect a variety of information on their customers including fingerprints, photos and physical descriptions. That information is then entered into a database shared with local law enforcement.

Sean Bersell, vice president of public affairs for the Entertainment Merchants Association, says it can create a difficult situation for merchants, but it also can help cut down on shoplifting. So while the association doesn't oppose the laws, it does work to try and keep them very narrowly focused.

It's a tough balancing act that leads to the association spending a lot of time dealing with laws it believes ask too much of merchants.

"There are several things going on," Bersell said. "A general concern about stolen goods both from residential burglaries and shoplifting has been around for a long time. Some of these laws have covered everything, including video games, since video games have been around."


Like pawn shop laws, secondhand goods laws were created to cut down on the resale of stolen goods and help law enforcement track criminals. Since their creation, many of these laws have been expanded to include an increasingly diverse selection of goods. These laws also require that items purchased from customers be tracked and reported to local law enforcement, but according to Bersell over the past ten years or so there has been a slow updating of state laws to specifically add video games to the list of items that need to be tracked. That's partly because video games are becoming an increasingly popular item among thieves and burglars.

"Law enforcement is drawing the connection between residential burglaries and drug abuse," he said. "People stealing to support their habit."

Those drug-fueled thefts led to the addition of a potpourri of items to the list of things tracked and reported to police including scrap metal, statues, grave markers and most recently gold.

"Used video games are getting swept up into that," Bersell said.

The shift away from paper records and to online computerized databases may have also fueled the drastic increase in the sorts of items being tracked by police, Bersell believes. Before law enforcement used computers to track items sold at pawn shops and secondhand goods stores, they had to keep track of reams of handwritten cards delivered by retailers to police and sheriff deputies. Now that the system is computerized, it's easier to collect that data and easier to quickly manipulate it in the search for stolen property or suspicious trends.

While the association isn't completely opposed to the use of secondhand goods laws to track potentially stolen items, they do keep a close eye on what is being asked of merchants. When a proposed law seems to ask too much of a store, the Entertainment Merchants Association works with legislatures to change it.

"We're not trying to stop these laws," Bersell said. "We're trying to shape them."



One recent law would have required store employees to go out into a parking lot and write down the license plate from a customer's vehicle. The EMA managed to cut that out of the law, arguing it was an excessive violation of a person's privacy and potentially dangerous to employees. Another law asked employees to take pictures of customers turning in used games, something the association worried would scare away legitimate customers.

"A lot of these laws are driven by people trying to do the right thing," Bersell said. "But in many cases they don't understand the impact. They are thinking that the only stores effected would be more like pawn shops. We are raising awareness that it's not just traditional secondhand stores, there are big retailers doing this as well."

Adhering to the already complicated secondhand goods laws is made more difficult by the fact that the details of those laws can differ not just by state, but by county or even city.

"Any jurisdiction that you operate in may have a law or may not and if it has a law it may be different then other jurisdictions' laws," Bersell said. "Two jurisdictions may even have conflicting laws.

"You can imagine that nightmare. Retailers have whole departments that deal with just this."

GameStop has a dedicated support team that spend its days researching and learning each law, said Wendy Dominguez, a spokesperson for the video game retailer.

"Over the past ten years, GameStop has developed the policies and procedures to effectively meet these challenges," she said. "We have also developed systems to prevent trade-in abuse across the GameStop chain.

"There are many complex secondhand laws to comply with in order to accept used video game trades. City, county and state laws vary greatly across the U.S. creating enormous legal challenges. Qualified personnel are needed to maintain compliance with these regulations."

The requirement that retailers take in sensitive personal information, like physical descriptions and fingerprints, and enter them into a database, spurred a small support industry designed around the security concerns retailers have about keeping that info for police.

"A real concern retailers have is that the law is asking us to have all of this data about people and they don't want to hold the data," Bersell said.

LeadsOnline is a national service designed to serve as a safe intermediary between retailers and law enforcement. LeadsOnline receives millions of transactions each month from the more than 15,000 businesses that use their service around the country, said Lindsay Williams, a spokesperson for the company. Businesses that use the service include game stores, mall kiosks, pawn shops, music stores and secondhand stores. She said that more than 4,000 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies have access to that information to help in crime solving.

The data, including scans of fingerprints and customer photos when required, is sent to the service through their secure website. Sworn law enforcement officers have complete access to that information once they enter in the case number for the crime they are investigating. Detectives can search records by serial number, description or suspect name. And the data shared is available to any law enforcement officer in the country no matter where in the United States the transaction took place, Williams said.

The LeadsOnline website is packed with examples of police and sheriff's deputies using the system to catch suspected arsonists, meth cooks, burglars and even rapists and murderers. And sometimes the thread that leads to those arrests include the theft of insubstantial items like video games.

A Missouri police detective wrote in to thank the service after using it to arrest a suspect in a series of thefts.

"I was able to arrest a subject last week after recovering over fifteen items on LeadsOnline," Woodson Terrace police Det. Sgt. Keith Stumpf wrote. "The suspect started using 'crack' about six months ago and to support his habit he stole jewelry, guns, video games and several other items from neighbors and family members. With the help of LeadsOnline, I recovered almost all of the stolen items.

"I was also able to get a confession once I showed [the suspect] the pawn tickets from your system. As a result, warrants were issued yesterday."

Other examples include an 11-year-old boy being reunited with his stolen Wii and collection of games, a suspected child murderer being pulled in for questioning following suspicious pawns and a suspect using stolen checks to buy $300 worth of games from a Texas GameStop.


While retailers are happy to comply with what they think are reasonable secondhand goods laws, they don't exactly want to advertise that they're giving your information to police.

The Electronic Merchants Association's Sean Bersell says that's one of the things they try to keep out of laws.

"There are some laws that require signage saying that these transactions are reported to law enforcement," he said. "Is that really necessary in a primarily new goods store?"

That and photo requirements could hurt business, Bersell says retailers worry.

Vox Games spoke with a handful of GameStop customers in states where secondhand goods laws are applied to used video games and customers seemed unaware their information was being given to law enforcement. Their reactions when told varied.

John Laster, who used to trade in five or so games a month at his local GameStop in Florida, said he knew that information was being collected about him when he traded in games, but didn't realize that info was going to police.

Knowing that, though, doesn't bother him, he said.

"The main reason I don't trade in games is that the rates offered are so horrible," he said.

Justin Brenis, who trades in games at his local GameStop in Ohio, says that providing the store with his personal information doesn't bother him either.

"Honestly despite the fact that it might take an extra minute or two, if I'm going to a game store I'm not typically in a hurry - otherwise it wouldn't be fun," he said. "Chances are I'll be hanging around shooting the breeze with an employee or two about something, so I'll fill out the form during this time. Also, not every store in Ohio requires it, and if it is one step more between me and ensuring the game I'm buying isn't stolen or damaged property, then so be it."

Antonio Watson, who does his game trading at a GameStop in Washington, D.C., said that the only people who should be worried about giving their information to stores are those who have something to hide.

"So many places track what we do and how we do it already; this seems relatively minor," he said. "That being said, I believe people should be informed of these things before relinquishing their information to these companies."

But the American Civil Liberties Union says you should be worried whenever a commercial business is asked to take so much personal information and give it to law enforcement.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU and author of The Surveillance Industrial Complex: How the American Government Is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance Society, says that the tracking of used video games is the byproduct of policies built on a slippery slope.

"It's a classic example of a slippery slope," he said. "Initially, limited information was collected about high value, frequently stolen items and the next thing you know they're collecting information for $20 video games."

Since 9/11 the government has been amplifying its capacity to collect data on its citizens by working with the private sector, Stanley says.

"I think whenever you have private companies doing things for the government it raises a whole set of questions about oversight and how that data is used."

Image credit: Shutterstock (1), (2), LeadsOnline