What is a Straw Purchase?

Misty Amber Brighton

Any purchase made by one person on behalf of someone who is unable to legally do so is a straw purchase. Although there can be many kinds of goods bought this way, the most common are firearms, automobiles, real estate, and alcohol. Some transactions involve the use of counterfeit documents and stolen identities, especially when real property is involved. If criminal intent can be proven, these purchases may sometimes be punishable by fines or imprisonment.

Woman posing
Woman posing

A person who conducts a straw purchase is known as a straw man. In most instances, these purchases are illegal both for the person conducting the transaction, as well as the individual who receives the goods. For this reason, many contracts for firearm sales warn buyers against conducting a transaction on behalf of someone else.

Before a transaction can be considered a straw purchase, the buyer must be aware that he is obtaining goods or services for someone else because the other party is unable to do so legally. This can be because that person has poor credit in some cases. Other times, it is because they might be too young to acquire certain goods, such as alcohol or tobacco. It can also be because federal firearms laws prohibit certain groups of people from buying guns.

Straw men may deceive lenders by giving fake names, identification, or social security cards. Scammers often seek individuals to act as an agent when dealing with financial institutions, providing them with the necessary documentation to carry out the straw purchase. These individuals often disappear shortly after the transactions are completed, taking the illegally acquired goods with them. If the scheme is eventually uncovered, the straw man can likely expect to be held accountable for his actions as well as that of the scammer.

Although a straw purchase is an illegal act, a retailer or lender is not at fault if he had no knowledge he was dealing with a straw man. Even so, people who suspect unauthorized purchases are being conducted should notify authorities. This is especially true if it appears someone has provided false identification documents.

An individual who completes a straw purchase with intent to further a criminal action can be punished in many jurisdictions. This could be whenever firearms are illegally obtained so that a crime can be committed. It could also include providing alcohol to minors. The penalties for committing this act vary from one country to the next, but often include fines, community service, or even jail time.

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Discussion Comments


I'd have to say I'm glad my dad was willing to be the straw man when buying a car for me in high school. I had saved up a lot of money from my part-time job, but I didn't have enough credit established to finance a car on my own. My dad said he would make a straw purchase at a local car auction and I could pay him back as I could.

I can see why the straw purchase of something like alcohol or a gun would be problematic, since there's probably a really good reason why the real "buyer" shouldn't have it. I don't have the same problem with a straw purchase for a necessary item like a car or a house. I guess an argument could be made against buying a car for someone with numerous DUI convictions or medical conditions that don't allow him or her to drive legally.


@Ruggercat68, I think it's a question of tracing back the purchase to the original buyer. If those underage roommates had gotten seriously intoxicated and destroyed property or drove on the streets, then the police would want to know how they came into possession of so much (illegal for them) alcohol. You might have gotten into serious legal trouble if they provided your name as the straw man.


I have to admit I was a straw man for some underage alcohol purchases back in my younger days. I happened to turn 21 a year or two before my college roommates, and they were always asking me to purchase beer or other adult beverages for them. I didn't understand what a straw purchase was at the time, but I'm sure the store clerk figured out that I wasn't planning on consuming two suitcases of beer, three bottles of whiskey and a fifth of vodka on my own. He sold it to me anyway.

The thing I wonder about with straw purchases like that is legal enforcement. I was an adult at the time, and an adult can legally purchase as much alcohol as a store will allow him to buy. The fact that I handed off most of those items to underage consumers probably made it a crime, but I can't see how a police officer could charge me unless he or she witnessed the exchange.

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