Is It Ethical to Buy at Flea Markets?

A few weeks ago, I was watching some late-night TV and a show about shoplifting in the US was on. It gave some pretty scary statistics about shoplifting in the US (and I'm sure it applies to Canada as well), and how much it affects all of us in our daily lives.

I learned that most of the shoplifting that happens in retail stores happens from the staff members. Often these staff members don't consider it stealing; they simply feel that the organization owes them something (because of a variety of reasons; maybe they feel underpaid, under appreciated, etc), and they take what they believe is owed to them.

The show followed local retail stores and their local police departments as they profiled, tracked down, and investigated several large theft rings. These people stole millions of dollars worth of merchandise from the retail stores that they targeted. They didn't steal the items for personal use. These professional shoplifters would bring them back to the organizer, who would sell the goods on sites like Ebay or in flea markets.

Consumers would frequent these flea markets or the Ebay stores to get a good deal on the products that would normally cost 20-50% more in the retail stores (from which the goods were shoplifted).

My case is that when we see products that aren't damaged for a substantially lower price than we've ever seen them in retail stores, somewhere, deep down, as responsible adults - we know that they were probably shoplifted or acquired by unethical means. 

Stores like Walmart don't have the highest of markups. It's not low, by any means, but it's not like they markup their products by 50%. Grocery stores (where a lot of the over-the-counter drugs are shoplifted from) only have an average markup of 8-12%. This is no secret. So then, if we stopped and thought about it before snapping up a good at a great deal - would we even care where the good came from? Or the means by which it was acquired?

So say you knew. Or even if you didn't, you know now. Obviously not ALL discounted goods come from career criminal shoplifting rings, but many do.

So, now, how do you feel about buying those goods?

There are a few ways to look at it, and I'm going to stay as neutral as possible:

It's OK Because I Didn't Steal It

Some may feel like buying from flea markets knowing that the goods are stolen is fine, because they didn't personally steal the item. They wouldn't steal the item, but they will buy it from somebody who may have.

Steal From the Rich, Give to the Poor

Some think that it should make no difference to Walmart, or other big box stores, because they are so large that they probably wouldn't notice. Having lower prices helps families who are struggling, so buying from flea markets that sell stolen goods is fine, because it helps the poor.

It's OK Because I don't Know 100% If It's Stolen

Not all flea market or discounted goods are stolen; some were damaged and thus must be sold at a discounted price, some were overstock, etc.

So maybe it's okay to buy goods that are oddly cheap, because who knows if it was really stolen or not?

It's Not OK Because It's Stolen

Some might feel that the purchase of stolen goods is unethical, because they were obtained by illegal methods. They may argue that the purchase of stolen goods is, in itself, a crime.


What is your stance on this? Would you be inclined to buy from vendors that were selling goods that were likely stolen to save a few bucks, or do you find it unethical?


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40 thoughts on “Is It Ethical to Buy at Flea Markets?

  1. I'm not a big flea market person (though my in-laws are!), but I never thought the goods there were stolen. Around here they tend to be used goods (more like yard sale stuff) or cheap knock-off products of "as-seen-on-tv" goods (instead of the Sham-Wow, think Sham-Awesome).
    In general, we don't go to flea markets because the quality is usually bad - so I guess it's kind of a moot point there. But we have turned down offers of speaker systems that were being sold out of the back of vans... that was definitely a sketch zone that we weren't comfortable with.

  2. Hmm, would I buy something that I thought was likely stolen? Probably not. I don't think I'd want to put myself in that situation, where potential retribution could affect me. I've never come across this problem at a flea market though, mostly roadside vendors.

  3. When you go to a flea market you never can really know from vendor to vendor what's stolen and what's legit. If some guy is opening up his trunk in an alley and looking over his shoulder while selling me some socket wrenches, I can assume that something is amiss. But a flea market is a valid place of business and if there's theivery problems there, then I expect the police to handle it. It doesn't make sense to me to avoid a valid place of business because some things there might be stolen .. again, you don't personally know from vendor to vendor what's what! But in the end, if you're uncomfy with it and think more is stolen than not, then I fully support you not going to flea markets . 🙂

  4. I'm more likely to think that something on Ebay is fake, rather than stolen. Flea markets around here are more about trinkets and used goods than anything else. I have found a few postings on Craigslist that I thought may have been for stolen goods.

    1. I agree about you about flea markets. But eBay has a strict rule about fake stuff. They have reps from companies like Gucci and Apple to make sure the items being sold are legit. If a buyer ends up getting a fake item, they can report them to eBay for a ban (former eBay employee)

      1. Brent

        That is a lie. I bought games that ended up being bootlegs from eBay. The seller admitted it and gave me my money back. I called eBay, but he is still a power seller. Similar things have happened to me on eBay, but the seller is still selling them. I have tried 4 times now to get one game and it always turns out fake. I would like to mention that these were US sellers.

  5. Evelyn

    More than unethical, purchasing stolen goods is aiding and abetting criminal behavior. Possession of stolen goods is a crime in Canada. And really? Unless it's someone selling off excess wedding gifts, we pretty much know in our gut that the shiny new toaster still in the box did not come from Gramma's attic.

  6. debkiller

    I think the majority of "high-end" items at a flea market are probably knock-offs, rather than stolen. But likewise, I'm sure a fair amount of items are in fact stolen. With that being said, I do think if you have a reasonable suspicion that an item is stolen, you shouldn't purchase it. Essentially, you're encouraging crime. But more importantly, I think it's even more unethical to SELL such items.

  7. I only went to flea markets when my parents took us on vacation to Hawaii. I was like 8, so I didn't know any better. I haven't gone since then, so I probably won't start now, especially if there is some criminal activity keeping them running.

  8. I wouldn't purchase something if I knew it was stolen goods. That said, sometimes it can be difficult to know that.
    For some of your examples, I know very legitimate ways that some goods have been acquired, because I've considered purchasing things and reselling them on eBay. For example - liquidation world buys their goods legitimately and will occasionally have fantastic prices on things because there are too many for a specific market. I regret not buying a bunch of scrapbooking punches to resell once, because there were way, way too many for the location of the store and they had marked them down to about 1/20 of their retail price!
    Another example was when a local store went out of business and were liquidating their stock. Many things sold for 70% off of retail.

  9. Hailey

    I think you are right, that some (I stress some) flea markets have criminal activity.

    However, in my hometown and also my current city, there are lots of flea markets that are simply a lot of homemade goods and used goods. At all the flea markets I've been to, I haven't really seen 'mainstream' items for sale. It's a lot of used goods, homemade goods and odds and ends. I also know that some church groups in the area will collect large amounts of damaged products/old/unused products and re-sell with with permission.
    Just be careful that you don't paint all flea markets with the same brush, some are more flea/farmer market types and are selling and re-selling with full permission and are by-the-book.

  10. It's obviously not right to be stealing from your employer and most people do it because they get away with it, more than once. I, on the other hand would have no problem buying something at a flea market if it was brand new as I would have no idea where it came from. If I knew it was stolen, then that would be a different story. I would not buy it. I normally go to flea markets to have a butchers but don't often purchase much. I have no problem buying something if the price is right. If it was stolen I'll never know and it's not worth my time to try and figure it out. As the old saying goes though, if it looks dodgy and smells dodgy, it likely is. Like the one poster above said, if a bloke flips open the car's boot in an alley or is giving you the signals or straight up tells you, then I'd tell him/her to sod off. The shops where these items are being picked best get better security. I have heard of this happening and these employees sell off the product asap.. or throw an extra item on the truck before delivery and stop off at a friends to dump it. It's wrong for any business to have to be subject to these losses.

  11. I haven't been to a flea market in forever but I figure if it is new there is something wrong with it or they're trying to pass it off as new and it is refurbished so I never buy that stuff. I have no problem buying used stuff in good condition though.

  12. Why did you tell me this? Now I can't trust flee markets.

    When I worked in the restaurant industry, employees were always stealing food. They thought it was owed to them because they were underpaid.

    I think you have to use your judgement and caution. I would never buy from someone I knew had stolen the item they were selling. However, I also don't feel as though it is fair to punish respectable merchants because others like them are obtaining goods by breaking the law. So, I guess I'm not really answering the question.

  13. Eddie

    Interesting post to say the least.
    I don't shop at flea markets....well I have no real reamer reason, but I just don't, even though there are 3 or 4 of them within a 5km radius from my house. If I ever did shop at a flea market, I'd think twice about buying a stolen item, it just seems wrong due to the fact that someone is going to earn a buck on be dishonestly.

  14. jefferson @seedebtrun

    We really don't have any flea markets around us, but I do buy from ebay on occasion.. I certainly wouldn't buy something if I knew it was stolen.. But how can you ever know?..

    I don't think that purchasing things from those venues is in and of itself unethical..

  15. Edward Antrobus

    Aside from when a Chinese gang was selling obviously pirated CDs, I can't say that I've ever seen obviously stolen goods sold at any of the flea markets I've gone to. Most of the stuff is used and that's where the best deals always are.

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  17. This is an interesting moral debate! I have not been to a flea market (I guess just market in the UK) for a long time, but I agree that we all know that some things just don't appear legit! I don't think morals come into it so much when using eBay because sellers will charge the same whether it is legit or not! We can be blissfully ignorant 😛

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  20. I go to flea markets for used items because I'm a believer in re-using old items opposed to buying new ones and making more garbage...but now that I think about it those things could have been robbed from a home...

  21. I'm not a flea market person (the few around here are full of overpriced old junk, not new goods), but I used to sell on eBay - a lot. While I do understand some of the goods may be stolen, I know from personal experience, a lot of the goods I sold were exactly as you described - damages (or sold for pennies on the dollar as damages, even if there was nothing wrong), overstock, or simply a case of a seller buying directly from a manufacturer and being able to sell for less due to lower overheads (I put all of those into play - I'm working on a blog post about it now, actually!).

    That said, I would never knowing buy stolen goods, I was burned even as a small seller too often, plus it's just WRONG. But I guess I'm naive, I generally believe most sellers are getting their goods from a legal source. 😛

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  23. Yes, I would find it unethical if I KNEW that the goods were stolen. I think that at some less than reputable flea markets and many pawn shops where I think this occurs and which I don't buy from. Ebay, however I think is hard to know what is stolen and what isn't. Just because you've never seen an item that cheap, doesn't meant you can't get it through legitimate means at that price from a different country or region. I use Ebay because I can't say that something is likely stolen just by looking at the price.

  24. Wow this is a pretty interesting stance. I always felt like it was a major score to find a dress at a flea market that was new with tags. Now I realize it may have gotten there by other means. I won't stop going to them since I know many of the items are donated (I donate regularly). However, it will make me think twice when I see a shiny new tag!
    Cat @ Budget Blonde

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  26. This is a really interesting thought! I've never thought about this for flea markets - I just assumed they bought wholesale and could sell for cheap since they have such low overhead costs (ie: a booth at a flea market).

    However, I did buy a wheel for my car on eBay once. My guy friends who are into cars, buy car parts online all the time (usually from but mentioned that I could find a wheel for cheap on eBay instead of buying one at the mechanic's garage. So I did, it was super cheap, then I drove to an auto shop for them to put it on. It worked great - no issues with that for as long as I owned the car. But a year or two later, I was having a conversation with someone about stolen cars and it was mentioned that if the car isn't worth anything, the thieves will sell the parts off individually.

    And then a lightbulb appeared over my head and I felt like the most naive person on the planet, "You mean, the wheel I bought on eBay was probably from a stolen car?"

    I felt really bad about it.

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  33. I've never been to a flea market, but know people that do. One of my co-workers bought a gorgeous coach purse at a flea market for $25. It certainly looked authentic. I told her it had to have been stolen. Also, my sister just had a garage sale selling expensive baby clothes and said items had been stolen. Seriously couldn't they have offered a quarter. Thanks for this post very enlightening.

  34. You do have to watch out for high value stolen goods because even if you buy it, like say a stolen necklace, you'd still have to return it to the original owner despite handing cash over for it if police ever followed up on the case and caught up to you. Happens with stolen paintings a lot.

    Also, things can easily get stolen in shipment, hence the large amount of a random assortment of things with tags. If you live near a port city, trust your gut on that one.

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