Sep 25, 2011

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Sep 6, 2011

Rick Harrison On His "Pawn Star"

Two years ago, a man walked into the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas with a pair of diamond earrings.

Pawn dealer Rick Harrison asked him the typical questions — Where did you get it? Where is the receipt? — and the man readily answered. Harrison filled out the required paperwork and paid the man $40,000 for his merchandise.

The very next day, Harrison found out the earrings were stolen. The victim got her earrings back and the criminal was prosecuted. Harrison, meanwhile, was out $40,000.

"It's the cost of doing business," Harrison says. "That's the way I look at it. ... And Las Vegas is a crazy town at times. There's a lot of high-end things I get. So you have to know about ... really large diamonds, really expensive watches. ... So it's a lot different than most places."

Harrison, a second-generation pawn shop owner, is one of the stars of The History Channel's reality series Pawn Stars. The show follows Harrison, his father, Richard, his son Big Hoss and his son's friend Chumlee as they meet and haggle with customers who bring in all sorts of objects to sell and pawn. Harrison and his relatives assess the value of the objects — and try to determine whether or not they're fake — before offering their customers a collateral loan or money for their merchandise.

Harrison's new memoir, License to Pawn, details how he became an expert in, among other things, spotting fake Rolexes (he sees at least one a day), customer relations, human behavior, antiques and economics — all through running his 24-hour-a-day pawn business over the past 30 years.

How Pawn Shops Work

Pawn shops, Harrison says, have been around for thousands of years and are among the oldest forms of banking. The way it works is simple: Customers provide a personal item as collateral to receive a loan from a pawn broker, who can then sell the product if the customer doesn't pay back the loan plus interest in a set amount of time.

"Say you have a wedding band," Harrison says. "You bring the wedding band in[to] my store. I offer you $100 and you accept it. I give you the $100, plus a pawn ticket. You have 120 days to come back in my pawn shop and pick up your merchandise and pay me my money back."

"If you come back in 30 days, you give me $115. I hand you the ring back and everything's good in the world. Now, if you don't pay me back," he says, "I end up keeping the merchandise and I put it in my showcase for sale. Nothing goes on your credit report. No one chases you down to break any legs or anything like that. You just simply have lost your merchandise. It's that simple."

The average loan for a piece of personal property, Harrison says, is around $50. And most pawn shops also charge a service fee and then tack on interest — which can vary between 10 percent and 20 percent a month.

"So if you get a $50 loan, it's going to cost you $7.50 for the first month and $5 after that," he says. "It's a lot less money than if you go to one of these payday loan places, or if you bounce a check, for that matter."

But Harrison must be careful — balancing his loans with how much the merchandise is actually worth, and how much he can receive if the merchandise is then resold. He has become an expert at assessing the value of Gibson guitars, Rolex watches, diamonds — as well as regular household items like drills, cameras and home electronics. And making sure goods aren't stolen is always an issue.

"Most people don't realize how regulated the pawn industry is, especially where I'm at in Nevada," he says. "When I take something in pawn or I buy something, I just don't take [an] ID. I take their driver's license number, their height, their weight, their eye color, their build. I turn that into the local police department, and then I also turn it into Homeland Security. It's part of the Patriot Act, and that goes to a central database online across the United States that checks for stolen items."

Doing Business

The best nights for business, Harrison says, are fight nights, when hundreds of thousands of fans flood Las Vegas to bet on boxing.

"Someone has to lose," he says. "I don't know what it is about fight fans. They always bet more than they can afford to lose."

Sometimes after fights, he says, fans line up down the block around his store waiting to trade in their jewelry for cash.

And who buys the jewelry from Harrison? Pimps — and there's a good reason why. "When you get arrested for pandering, they take your cash — because the cash was obtained illegally — but they don't take away your jewelry," Harrison explains. "And a pimp knows that if he buys jewelry in a pawn shop, if [he] brings it back to a pawn shop and gets a loan against it, [they'll] always get half of what you paid for it — as opposed to buying it in a jewelry store, when [they] don't know what [they're] going to get. So, when they get arrested, they will always have someone bring their jewelry down to me. I will loan them half of what they paid for it — and that's their bail money."

But pimps aren't Harrison's only customers — he has a series of regulars, including gamblers, billionaires and men trying to impress their dates. But the people on his TV show, he says, are generally those trying to sell — not pawn — their goods.

"The people pawning goods never want to be on the show," he says. "And the reason behind that is because when people are pawning something, they're getting a loan and have to admit they're broke. ... When people are selling something, it's a financial transaction and it's just perceived differently."

And his advice for would-be negotiators? Stay friendly, never stay in love with anything, and never set the first price.

"You're negotiating against yourself," he says. "You don't want to offer someone $1,000 for something, if you ask them what they'd pay for it, and they might have said $500. ... And if it's in your head that you're going to buy this no matter what, you've already lost. There's no real negotiating going on. You've completely capitulated if you're going to get it no matter what."

Interview Highlights On negotiating up

"I actually had a lady come into my pawn shop with a Faberge brooch. And she wanted $2,000 for it. And I just explained to her, 'You know what? I can't do it to you.' I ended up giving her $15,000. I just couldn't do it. I really do believe in six degrees of separation. If I did give her $2,000 for that, she would have eventually found out that I ripped her off, and she would have told everybody for the rest of her life, 'Don't go to that store. They will rip you off.' ... And I'm sure [good karma] works, because that woman will be worth her weight in advertising because she will tell everybody for the rest of her life what I did for her."

On the market for pawn shops

"I think it's 20 percent of the adult population in the United States that does not have a bank account. And most of them can't get one. They don't have credit cards. They don't have anything like that for when some small emergency pops up. A lot of people don't realize that up until the 1950s, pawn shops were the No. 1 form of customer credit in the United States."

On determining whether a Rolex is real or fake

"There's a list of things that are right on a Rolex watch that's not right on a fake. The case has to be right. The dial of the watch has to be right. The crystal, the stem, the movement. If everything checks out, everything's fine. ... Fifteen years ago, someone spent probably three- or four-thousand dollars to make a fake Rolex. And I got burned on that one, so it won't happen again. Someone bought a 1970s Rolex — a really beat-up one, for $700 or $800. They take the movement out. They got a new Rolex face for it. New Rolex hands. New crystal. Made an 18-karat gold case and band for it. And they were in the watch probably $3- to $4,000. I ended up buying it for $5,000. It's an entire industry, making fake things."


Nov 11, 2010

Top Russian spy defects to U.S.

Top Russian spy defects after unmasking U.S. ring

Remember that Russian spy-ring that authorities rounded up back in June? Right, that one.

Well, it looks like members of the operation were betrayed by their boss. And it turns out he has defected to the United States, throwing Russia's foreign intelligence service into turmoil.

A Moscow newspaper, Kommersant, has reported that a Colonel Shcherbakov, who ran Russia's deep-cover U.S. spying operations, was responsible for the spies' unmasking, and that he left Russia just days before the spy-ring arrests were announced June 28. Gennady Gudkov, a Russian lawmaker who sits on Parliament's national security committee, has confirmed the Kommersant report.

Shcherbakov, whose first name was not reported, would become one of the most high-ranking turncoats since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990.

An unidentified Kremlin official told the paper--a respected Russian business daily--that Russia is now planning to assassinate Shcherbakov, offering this chilling quote: "Do not doubt that a Mercader has been sent after him already." (Ramon Mercader was a Russian agent who assassinated Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, after the exiled Bolshevik had fallen out with Stalin's regime.)

The news comes as a major blow to the reputation of Russia's foreign intelligence agency, known as the SVR. According to AFP, Kommersant reports that Russian officials are pressing to find out why SVR brass allowed Shcherbakov to stay in his crucial post even though his daughter was living in the United States--an obvious threat to security even in less sensitive agencies.

"There has never been such a failure by Section S, the American department that Shcherbakov directed," one top Russian lawmaker told the paper.

There's already talk of a special panel being created to probe the reasons for the blunder. The SVR chief, former Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, may be fired and the entire unit folded into the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, according to the paper.

The 10 spies arrested in June all pleaded guilty, and were deported back to Russia as part of a spy swap two weeks later -- though not before at least one of them, Anna Chapman, became a tabloid sensation in the United States.

Meanwhile, U.S.-Russian relations appear to be clouded by the affair's ongoing fallout. Kommersant reports that Russia's intelligence service reacted so harshly to news of Shcherbakov's defection that it sabotaged recent talks between the two powers on anti-ballistic missiles. "The Foreign Intelligence Service is so enraged that it keeps torpedoing all and any work with the Americans, even including ABM projects," a senior Russian diplomat told the paper.


Paper Plane Goes to Space

Three British space buffs attached a paper airplane and a camera to a helium balloon that soared 23 miles above ground, and captured amazing images.

"We did it because we wanted to see if we could — and we could!" IT expert Steve Davies told Sky News Online. The plane, which had a three-foot wingspan, was made of straws and covered in paper. At about 90,000 feet, the helium balloon burst.

Check out more of the incredible photos below:


Oct 5, 2009

Awesome Red Tail Hawk Photo

Pat Gaines actually felt sorry for the red-tailed hawks at Bonny Lake State Park this summer.

Despite their aggressive reputation, loud screams and fierce, piercing looks, the red-tailed hawks at the park north of Burlington, just west of the Colorado-Kansas border, were being bullied when Gaines saw them.

"I've never seen red-tails harassed so much. They all seemed hoarse. I felt kind of sorry for them," said Gaines of the sight of dozens of little birds dive-bombing the hawks.

The hawks were minding their own business, Gaines recalled.

But the western kingbirds at the park were upset.

Highly territorial, the kingbirds felt the hawks were intruding on their space, said Gaines, a Westminster scientist who helps develop vaccines and tests used in veterinary medicine.

Gaines had focused his camera on one red-tailed hawk because the bird had been screaming. As he followed the hawk across the sky, a kingbird dive-bombed the hawk.

The hawk, which is not a predator of the kingbird, flew as fast as it could from the kingbird. For a moment it appeared the kingbird had stopped attacking. But then it began the pursuit again and — to Gaines amazement — landed on the hapless red-tail's back.

"He rode the hawk for 25 yards. The hawk was not trying to fight back — it was just trying to get out of there," said Gaines.

As the kingbird rode bareback on the hawk, it pecked away at the hawk's head.

"They (the kingbirds) are not afraid of anything," said Gaines. "Until this happened, I had never seen one perch on a hawk's back."

Gaines posted his photo at the Colorado Birder website last month, where he is a frequent contributor.

Other sites, including some in the United Kingdom, have picked up the photo.

The comment posted by Colorado Birder Sarah E sums up the reaction to the image: "Awesome photo!"

Howard Pankratz: 303-954-1939 or

Feb 1, 2009

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