They operate from hotel rooms, buying heirlooms, class rings, silverware and gold watches from customers eager to cash in on today's soaring prices for precious metals.
But these gold and silver dealers, a source of quick money for their patrons, are also a source of growing concern for police and prosecutors in many jurisdictions who say they fear some of the merchandise brought in for sale may be stolen.
Police in Virginia Beach -- which unlike Northern Virginia localities has a strong ordinance governing such dealers -- cracked down this week, arresting six people and charging them with operating without a license, buying from a juvenile, and failing to require identification from the sellers.
The authorities, who used a 17-year-old to pose as a customer, are now checking records to see whether $4,000 in gold and silver items they seized may have been stolen.
Even some more established firms in Northern Virginia say they require customers to present some form of identification, but do not ask questions about the merchandise.
"If they tell me it's their diamond ring, there's no way for me to know it's not," says an employe of Khala Gem in Springfield.
That problem has led to numerous calls for corrective legislation that would tighten controls on dealers. Fairfax County Supervisor Audrey Moore of Annandale has asked the county staff to look into whether the board can pass an ordinance requiring that dealers be licensed and keep careful records of their merchandise.
"You hate to pass legislation that creates a hassle unless there is a real problem, and there is a real problem here," says Moore.
Charlie Dennis, a staff member in the county prosecutor's office, agrees. Many dealers "immediately melt the merchandise down," he says. "A lot of times it seems they ought to know better about who they buy it from."
State Sen. Wylie F. Mitcell Jr. (R-Alexandria) says he plans to introduce legislation next January that would govern the licensing of precious metal buying firms statewide.
"My suspicion is that a lot of the current gold and silver sales are handled by people who are becoming unknowing or knowing shields for people who have come to own gold and silver by less than honest means," he says.
In Alexandria, a five-year-old ordinance requiring that junk dealers be licensed will be tested in court next month when prosecutors will try to apply it for the first time to a gold and silver dealer.
Charged with violating the ordinance is a dealer who operated out of a hotel room in the city, melting down the precious metals within an hour of purchase and then selling them to out-of-state refineries, according to Alexandria chief prosecutor John Kloch.
If the ordinance fails the court test, says Kloch, he hopes the state will enact strong legislation to fill the gap.
Virginia officials said yesterday that an existing state law requiring the junk dealers be licensed may not apply to gold and silver dealers because they only buy merchandise from the public and do not pose as sellers.
Dealers who set up temporary shop in hotel or motel rooms often draw a steady stream of would-be customers. A recent visitor to one such operation found about 20 people in the room, waiting to sell items. One customer who visited another hotel room in Northern Virginia said he was paid $24 for a class ring he found in the street. "I got the cash in five minutes, no questions asked," he said.