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Cops confront video game black market

By Andrew Hickey
Staff writer

Video games aren't just child's play anymore.

Police say crooks are capitalizing on the popularity of the games, snatching the high-dollar, high-tech goods and reselling them to make a quick buck. For some thieves, pawn shops have been replaced by stores that buy and sell used video games and video game systems.

In Danvers, video game thefts have more than doubled since last year. Danvers police have received 28 reports of stolen video games and systems in the last six months, compared with 13 during the six-month period between November 2003 and May 2004.

"We have seen an increase in video games being taken in housebreaks and shopliftings," said Christopher Bruce, a crime analyst with the Danvers Police Department.

Police in other North Shore communities have also noted an increase in stolen video games, though the departments could not provide statistics

The area is home to several stores that buy and sell used video games and resell them at a considerable discount. Salem Detective Lt. Thomas Griffin said the video game swap shops are "sort of like a pawn shop, but on a kid's level."

Police say they are onto the scam and have started checking with stores to see if recently pilfered PlayStations and ill-gotten Xboxes wound up there.

Bruce said the stores have cooperated with police and have kept solid records on the people who come in to sell video games. The GameStop in Beverly helped Danvers police track down a stolen Sony PlayStation game system and even provided a security video of the transaction.

Employees at the GameStops in Beverly and Peabody and at the EB Games at the malls in Peabody, Danvers and Swampscott said it's a possibility that stolen items could be resold there. By law, the employees said, they are not allowed to ask a seller where the games came from and cannot accuse them of theft.

But they also said the stores have safeguards. Sellers must present a photo ID with their address. Employees log the information into the store's computer system, including any serial numbers on the equipment.

Still, police said, as the market for used video games increases, games will continue to be stolen and resold.

New video games cost roughly $50, while video game systems run anywhere from $100 to $300. The amount a seller receives varies greatly, depending the popularity of the games. A copy of the Madden '97 football game for PlayStation would net only a dime, for example, while a used copy of the newly released "Star Wars" game would fetch $30 to $35.

As more and more crooks try to break into the lucrative games market by breaking into homes or shoplifting from legitimate game vendors, police are slowly starting to keep them in check.

A 23-year-old suspect was arrested last month after burglarizing more than a dozen homes in Salem and Peabody and stealing several games and consoles. In one burglary in April, a resident reported 40 games and a PlayStation were taken. Just days later, another resident told police that $1,000 in video games and a PlayStation 2 were grabbed.

Bruce, the Danvers crime analyst, said a group of men from Saugus were caught stealing almost 40 games at once at the Liberty Tree Mall in April.

What makes it hard for police, Peabody Detective Lt. Martin Cohan said, is that sometimes the jobs are carried out by young addicts who exchange their haul for drugs directly with a dealer and skip the trade-in shops.

"They have to be extremely ignorant or desperate to go to the stores," Cohan said. "That leaves a paper trail."

Bruce said not all video game thefts involve juveniles. He said many of the suspects are in their 20s and 30s. Like many shoplifters, the thieves have drug problems and are selling the games to support their habit, he said.

Bruce said as long as there is strong demand for video games, the thefts and trade-offs will likely continue.

"The market out there for used video games is really driving this type of crime," he said.
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