Residents looking for their missing bicycles, stolen cell phones, or just a good deal, could get lucky if they visit the online auction sites where a growing number of area police departments sell their unclaimed property.
The goods range from stolen tools and electronics recovered after an arrest, to random homeless lawn ornaments that get turned over to the local police, officials said.
Such booty has become available to a wider shopping audience through online auctions as police look for efficient ways to get rid of the clutter they say takes up too much room and too much time to deal with. If agencies aren't able to return recovered goods to their rightful owners in six months, they're allowed under Illinois law to auction it off.
So auction companies in recent years have crafted services for selling such specialized goods, and law enforcement agencies are growing more comfortable with the idea of letting someone else do the work for them, said Lisa Robin, president of the Illinois Association of Property and Evidence Managers.
"People, I think, balked at it at first, and now they understand it," she said. "They don't like change too much, but when it makes sense, that's where you've got to go."
And between unclaimed bicycles, stolen tools and electronics, police property rooms in the Chicago suburbs generally look like those in California and New York, according to Tom Lane, founder and owner of the Property Room, an online auction company based in Frederick, Md.
"The bad guys steal car radios and car stereos and laptops and iPads and iPhones and tools out of construction workers' trucks," he said. "They pretty much steal the same stuff across the country."
Still, the most commonly unclaimed item at most police departments in the area is bicycles, officials said.
"We got a problem where we get bikes that are found and people don't claim them," said Jack Mattes, assistant support service manager for the Orland Park Police Department. "They don't even know the serial number."
Other companies serving agencies in the Chicago area include GovDeals Inc., based in Montgomery, Ala., and the local Obenauf Auction Services in Round Lake.
Property Room has contracts with more than 50 law enforcement agencies in the Chicago area. The first towns to sign up were Glenview and Glencoe in 2004, a company spokeswoman said. The Chicago Police Department signed up in 2011, and the Oak Lawn Police Department signed a contract in June.
The company, which has a warehouse in Chicago where employees sort and catalog the property, did its first pickup from Oak Lawn in September, said Oak Lawn Police Division Chief Roger Pawlowski. In late November, the department received a check for about $1,100.
The last time the department hosted its own auction it made $2,730, he said. Since he expects Property Room to make pickups from the department four times a year, he is estimating the department will earn more revenues than it did by running its own live auctions.
"Things seem to be going well," he said. "The space constraints are much better."
Property Room officials explain that their commission on the items they sell on their auction site is based on a sliding scale. Contracts between the company and several municipalities showed that for most items it sells, the company will keep 50 percent of the first $1,000 and 25 percent of sale prices above $1,000.
Cmdr. Pat Duggan with the Orland Park police said they have been using Property Room since 2007 and like the results.
"This just seemed to be a good alternative to release property and try to get some money for it without spending a lot of man hours (on live auctions)," he said.
Still, revenue from the sales varied for Orland Park in 2012, with the village receiving checks for about $30 in June and July, but actually ending in the red in March when sales for the period were less than a fuel surcharge for transporting the goods, according to invoices from the police department.
Kim Stoner, police services manager with the Naperville Police Department, said she estimates the department actually makes less money through Property Room than it did formerly with its own live auctions, but in the end it's worth it because they spend less on staff overtime.
"It's more efficient for us," she said.
Meanwhile, GovDeals offers a different system with lower commissions. Where Property Room handles everything from pickup to payment for its clients, GovDeals only supplies the online auction infrastructure where towns can post, sell and arrange shipment of their own items, according to officials with Hoffman Estates.
The village has contracted with GovDeals for more than seven years, and in exchange for doing most of the work, the village keeps 97.5 percent of the sales, said Tia Messino, with the village.
"With GovDeals, we do most of the work, and I think that's probably why we get a bigger percentage back," said Sgt. Darin Felgenhauer.
In recent years, a local auction house has also started catering to area municipalities and competing with the national companies with its own online auction site. Lee Neuroth, advertising manager for Obenauf Auction Services, said his company serves more than 100 municipalities in Lake and Cook counties. In November, their website received more than 1 million page views and new interest from both sellers and buyers every day.
"The onlines are growing rapidly," he said. "More and more municipalities are electing to go online rather than the traditional live, on-site auction."
Most of the sales are for surplus equipment from municipalities and seized vehicles from police departments, but occasionally they also will host a miscellaneous sale of hodgepodge items that come from a police department's property room.
It has hosted online auctions of coins and jewelry for the Lake County Sheriff's Department, and Neuroth said it is an area the company is actively trying to expand.
"It's such an exciting market," he said. "There's no hour of the day that somebody isn't looking at our stuff."