How to Keep Estate Sales Theft to a Minimum

No matter how much we prepare, theft can be a serious problem at estate sales. As estate sale professionals, we have sharp memories of what the items are and where every item has been set up. When no one has purchased a piece and it is nowhere to be found, we realize the hardcore truth that this piece has been stolen.

There are two kinds of thieves: the professional criminal and the opportunistic amateur.

The professional criminal is going to scope out the house long before the sale occurs. They may try to get into the home early; another reason to not permit any pre-sales. If you have a multi-day sale, they will come on the first day to understand the layout of the home. They may even go into back rooms and unlock windows so they can return in the dark of night to help themselves. The estate liquidator must use extra diligence in securing the home each day after the sale to ensure everything is locked up tightly. They are generally looking for anything from jewelry to guns, to copper pipes plus much more.

The amateur is looking to lift small items when they feel no one is looking. These items may be costume jewelry, silver, tools, or collectibles such as cigarette lighters and small bric-a-brac. Lately, we are hearing reports from liquidators that thermostats, bathroom hardware, and outdoor fish pond pumps are disappearing too. This poses a head-scratching, “what-do-I-do?” moment for the estate liquidator to protect the clients’ possessions and their own reputation, for the liquidator will usually have to pay for those missing items.

How does one outsmart thieves?

In order to outsmart them, you must think like them.

Even if you don’t agree with each item below, think about how they can help minimize theft.

1. Vacant Homes. Discuss this ahead of time with your client. A vacant home is a target; things can disappear before you even get started. Make sure the home has electricity/heat/air, the water turned on, adequate plumbing, etc. Make sure the client secures the home as much as possible before you agree to do the job.

2. Consider sleeping on-site if the estate is in a rural area. If you are liquidating a home in a more rural setting, consider sleeping in the home the night before the sale, with the client’s permission. With lights on and cars in the driveway, a potential burglar will see the home is occupied.

3. Control the keys. Ask your client to retrieve keys from neighbors or friends, if at all possible. The executor should change the keys to secure the home if a loved one has died. Also important: Have the client issue you a new security alarm code.

4. Extra signs. Post signs on the front door and on every table: “Shoplifters Will Be Prosecuted.” Unfortunately, we may have reached a point where we can’t be concerned with offending anyone. Print them on your computer with bright colored paper and post them at each table. If anyone asks, you are cracking down on thieves.

5. Bigger, bolder barricades. Blue painter’s tape or masking tape may not be enough. Start barricading with bigger, bolder tape or rope. One suggestion is the yellow plastic “CAUTION” roll you can buy at Lowes or Home Depot. It looks like tape but isn’t. You can wrap it anywhere to barricade certain areas that are off-limits. This will definitely get more attention and screams, “Do Not Go in This Area.” Tape signs to the yellow plastic CAUTION tape, if necessary.

6. No public restrooms. Post this on the front door and throughout the home.
Gone are the days that you could trust a young mother with a small child, or an elderly person, sad to say. Occasionally, people really do need the restroom in an emergency. Use your own discretion.

7. Bundle together many things with string, ribbon, shrink wrap, etc. to make theft more difficult.

8. Make sure you have an accurate accounting or inventory of items to be sold. Take photos or videos to protect you from neighbors, which have a key and come in at night, or from others that help themselves. Don’t be blamed for what someone else does.

9. What is your bag/tote/purse policy? Rethink it. Consider buying open plastic baskets, like you may use at the grocery store, with your company name. These will be returned as the people pay and leave.

10. Reserve the right to check handbags, suitcases, boxes, even “purses with puppies.” Retail does it. So should you.

11. Consider hiring professional security for higher-end estates. Many police officers will do security when off-duty.

12. Strategic placement of staff. Theft may be happening because there is not enough staff or not enough strategically placed staff.

Gather more valuable small items in the front two rooms where those can be watched by more staff nearby. Worry less about large, heavy items in the back of the home.

Post staff at all showcases and position the openings away from attendees. Cases containing jewelry, silver, etc. should be positioned where entry is to the back, if possible, for your staff to reach in. The showcases should have signs: “Only one item out of a case at a time. Do not reach in. The assistant will hand you the item.” Yes, they have to wait, and yes, they will complain. At the end of the day, you are accountable for those items that have value. If they really want to look at or purchase them, they will wait.

13. Handling large amounts of jewelry. Consider a receipt system. Using the policy above by showing one item at a time, the potential buyer will have a short period of time to make a decision.

A. Once they want the jewelry item, record the item or inventory number assigned to that piece in a carbon-copy receipt book, along with their name. Write their name on the hand tag too.

B. Your worker takes the jewelry and places it in a cubby/shelf system withdrawers, alphabetically according to the buyer’s name. This cubby is located behind the worker and out of the public’s reach.

C. The buyer then takes the receipt to the cashier and pays for it.

D. When they come back to the display, they must present you with a “PAID” stamped and hand initialed receipt from the cashier. Then and only then, you give them the jewelry.

This procedure controls the theft of jewelry and motivates the potential buyer to pay for it quickly. Make sure the cubby or organizer drawers you are using to “hold” the jewelry is manned at all times.

14. Floating employees in plain clothes. Have plain-clothed employees walking around; they do nothing but watch. If you have uniformed employees, ask two to come dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.

Be prepared to follow through by calling the police. If a sale attendee starts getting out of hand, have an employee take a photo of this person, so they can be identified if necessary. Always cover your back with photos and documentation. Make a written list of people, with their phone numbers, who are witnesses to a scene or potential problem. You must prove that you did everything possible to whoever might question you: the client, police, court.

15. Eyes at the check-out table. If the check out area is really congested or confusing, much theft can take place in the waiting line, right under your nose.

16. Control entry by posting one employee as the door person. Only allow in a set amount of people at a time, especially for the first few hours. As 5 people leave, let 5 more in. This is vital to maintain control of not only the crowd, but also breakage, tripping hazards, and potential tensions among buyers.

17. Do you suspect your employee is stealing? You know what to do. You will have to watch them, and confront them politely. If the trust is broken, let them go; your reputation is on the line.

There is no need to apologize for your new rules. Just explain that bad behavior from attendees has forced professionals to this level, which makes it more difficult for others to enjoy the experience.

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