Have you ever wondered what happens to property that's been seized by the police but is left unclaimed? Or what the boys in blue do with all the things that get handed in at police stations but whose owners are never located? Police and government auctions are an opportunity to pick up all sorts of goods - from cars and jewellery to military vehicles and compasses - at rock bottom prices.
And if you've never heard of them, you could be missing a trick.
How do they work? Every year, millions of pounds worth of goods are either seized by the police or handed in to stations.
Just as mortgage lenders do not want to have repossessed houses on their books and have to sell them at bargain prices, police forces, not wanting to be saddled with the seized or unclaimed goods, sell them at specialist auctions – with the money made going back to the police force, where it is often split between charitable causes.
Since the police are in a hurry to sell – and because the auctions are often not well publicised – it is possible to bag yourself a bargain.
So what's up for grabs? Recent sales at auction website police-auctions.org.uk include a Dyson DC04 Upright Vacuum Cleaner, sold for £27, a Panasonic DVD Player, sold for £4.02 and a 300-Watt Car Amplifier, sold for £5.50. You can also pick up items such as clothes, bikes and computers, and even cars.
Which sites to use The primary website used by police to sell items that have been seized in raids or handed in to a station is bumblebeeauctions.co.uk. It's an official police website used by forces across the country. Users bid on items in the same way as they would on sites such as eBay.co.uk.
"Bumblebee Auctions acts effectively as a shop front the police force and local authorities can use to dispose of various types of property," explains Chris Leach, director of Exess Consultants, which runs the day-to-day side of Bumblebee Auctions.
"The force is responsible for photographing and listing the items and the items stay with them until either collected by the winner or collected for delivery." Leach says it's possible to get brand new goods for up to 50% or more off high street prices through Bumblebee Auctions, not to mention the chance to get your hands on some pretty unusual items.
"The most unusual item we've had for sale is probably an industrial fog-making machine that fell off the back of a lorry in Sussex, literally," says Leach. "There was also an old brass diving helmet from Devon and Cornwall, we've had all sorts of strange and wonderful items." If it's some military equipment you're after, surplus army clothing, boots and other equipment is often sold through official MOD contractors the-outdoors.co.uk. You can buy items immediately or wait and try your luck at one of its auctions.
Police forces that don't use Bumblebee Auctions tend to sell their unclaimed property through auction houses. Chris Aston is the owner of Astons Auctions, which holds police auctions on behalf of the West Midlands Police Force.
"The auctions are the same as any other auction, except all of the stock has either been stolen and recovered and subsequently not been claimed by the original owner for whatever reason, or has been handed in as lost property and not been claimed," he says. To find your nearest auction house and details of upcoming sales, your best bet is to contact your local station.
There are some websites you can use but some of them, such as governmentauctionsuk.com (Gauk) charge a monthly fee for access to all auctions across the UK.
However, Gauk defends its costs by saying "it takes a large team of staff to input data" and that you are paying for the convenience of "having it all at your fingertips".
Be careful But unlike Gauk, not all websites are legit. Ironically, there are several fake police auction sites masquerading as the real deal.
To make sure you're dealing with a legitimate auctioneer, contact your local police authority (you can find out which force you require in England or Wales by entering your postcode at police.uk).
"Each police authority has their own system for handling property," explains Aston. "Call your local one and they will tell you where they send goods for auction." For example, in Scotland, the Strathclyde force uses wilsonsauctions.com.
For reassurance, Bumblebee Auctions displays police force banners on its website and always has force contact details available for people who have any suspicions. And, if you're scouting for a bargain on a police auction site and come across something that has actually been stolen from you, you should contact the site immediately.
"This has happened a few times since we started," explains Leach. In these cases, if the item is still on auction, the sale will be stopped and once the usual checks have been made it will be returned to the rightful owner.
"If it has been paid for and collected or delivered we will still aim to get the item back with any losses being covered by the police force. The entitlement to the property always rests with the rightful owner." Where to buy Bumblebeeauctions.co.uk The official police auction website. Items can be bought for 50% off recommended retail prices or more. The goods available range from perfume and aftershave to vacuum cleaners and motorbikes.
Auction houses Items that are not sold on bumblebeeauctions.co.uk are generally sold through traditional auction houses. Jewellery and technical goods are commonly found at these auctions and it is possible to pay up to two-thirds less than the recommended retail price. Larger auctions can sell vehicles.