I have no idea whether or not Chief Constables are readers of this column (if they’re not, they ought to be) but I have a message for each of them: do homeowners a favour and get the Bumblebee on your team of crime fighters. It’s a honey of an idea and it’s designed to take some of the sting out of being the victim of a burglary.
It’s all so simple: when police recover stolen property with no known owners, it is posted on an online database so that members of the public who have suffered loss can search and browse through the lists to try to identify their missing property.
Named after Operation Bumblebee, the huge roadshow in which hundreds of recovered
items from various burglaries were put on show at Epsom Racecourse in 1997, Bumblebee has another unique service – it’s own auction sales – more of which later.
The problem facing both the police and the owners of fine art and antiques is that so much stolen property is generic and to an extent, untraceable. After all, one Royal Doulton figure or Clarice Cliff tea service looks very much like the next.
If owners cannot be found, property can be handed back to suspected or known burglars arrested with it in their possession, and prosecutions can fail as a result.
In the normal course of events in their attempts to trace the owners of stolen property, the police make direct contact with victims; they take out advertisements or run news stories in the local press and generally cast around as best they can hoping to match sad homeless objects with even sadder individuals pining for the loss of family heirlooms.
Now, thanks to an Internet-based service called Virtual Bumblebee (www.virtualbumblebee.co.uk) anyone with their own computer, or access to one in their local library for example, can search the database and make a claim on anything they think belongs to them. Once the local police confirm proof of ownership, the objects are duly handed over.
The idea is not new. It was first mooted by the Metropolitan police force following Operation Bumblebee 10 years ago and it will have been running in its present format for five years this October. Virtual Bumblebee, as it is called today, is a joint police initiative among 14 forces, mostly in the south of England.
The company supplying the IT infrastructure behind Bumblebee is Coraider Services, based in South West London, and their director, Nick Browne, wants to see the operation become the universal clearing house for recovered property.
Results are nothing short of remarkable. "Virtual Bumblebee has had extraordinary success," he said. "Returns are currently running at between 20 to 25 per cent, which represents property valued at many hundreds of thousands of pounds."
A unique and equally exciting related service – especially for readers of this column – are the eBay-style online Bumblebee Auctions (www.bumblebeeauctions.co.uk) where police forces are able to sell unclaimed property. Bargains abound and better still, the money raised goes to various police-nominated charities.
Not surprisingly, the ownerless goods sound as if they have come straight off the back of a lorry: mobile phones, laptops, iPods, jewellery, watches, digital cameras, golf bags and clubs and so on. The difference is that because the auctions are run by the police, there is no likelihood of a problem over ownership and sellers won’t do a runner with your cash.
As in any online auction, lots are posted with a photograph and brief description, with bidding remaining open for set numbers of days. Like eBay, buyers can make proxy (commission) bids and Coraider’s software will execute them on your behalf up to your limit and buy the lot as cheaply as other bids allow.
Unlike eBay, Bumblebee does not permit bid sniping. The software has been specifically designed to give every bidder a fair chance of winning an item by extending the bidding period so that all users have a reasonable chance to respond to a rival bid before the virtual hammer falls.
If no one else bids, that as-new pair of Nike trainers or gleaming mountain bike could be yours for as little as £1.
Naturally, the number of lots on offer at any one time is infinitesimally small when compared to that of giant eBay. However, there is no shortage of little gems – literally – waiting to be picked up.
So what are the drawbacks? Winning bids can only be paid for through the online payment company Nochex (not really a problem since it’s free to send money); choice is limited (made up for by the number of likely bargains); large items have to be collected in person from the police station responsible for the specific sale (small items can be posted at a cost to the buyer) and because only 14 of the country’s 43 forces in England and Wales participate means that buyers might have to travel considerable distances to collect their purchases.
Which brings me back to the Chief Constables: what are you waiting for?