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How to score big at government auctions, on everything from real estate to bugles

Rolex watches seized from drug lords. Homes confiscated from tax cheats. Blackhawk helicopters the military no longer needs. The federal government is auctioning off all this - and more.

Rolex watches seized from drug lords. Homes confiscated from tax cheats. Blackhawk helicopters the military no longer needs. The federal government is auctioning off all this - and more. The "more" often means mundane things like office chairs and shredders and mysterious things like "swamp cooler pads" and a "Teel Diaphram Trash Pump."

These days most government auctions occur online, but some still offer the opportunity to check out the goods on site. If you go in person you'll find the people-watching just as fascinating as the auction items themselves.

Several different federal agencies hold government auctions. The General Services Administration is the granddaddy of them all, because it sells on behalf of other departments. When a federal agency no longer needs something - say, a pickup truck - it reports the truck to GSA, which first offers it to other federal agencies and then to state and local governments or nonprofits. If nobody claims the truck, then the GSA auctions it off to the public, and you get your chance at it.

Depending on the agency, the government may use revenue from auctioned items to support crime-prevention programs, pay restitution to crime victims or purchase new equipment the department needs. "By providing agencies with the ability to dispose of excess assets, GSA benefits taxpayers by eliminating the need to maintain and store the unneeded property while also raising more than $300 million in revenue in just the last two years," a GSA spokesperson said.

These programs are meant to benefit taxpayers as a whole, but could they benefit you, the individual taxpayer? Can you bag a bargain at a government auction? "GSA's goal is to maximize return to the federal government," the GSA spokesperson said. So they're not giving this stuff away. In fact, the government sets "reserves" or minimums for the most valuable property it auctions off. But judging from a wide tour of current government auctions and bids, there are still opportunities to walk away with valuable goods for a great price. Here's a look at who's selling what, where, and for how much.

- General Services Administration: GSA operates three different auction websites: This is GSA's main auction site and features 23 different categories, including intriguing ones like "Boats and Marine Equipment"and "Artifacts, Jewelry and Exotic Collectibles" plus "NASA Shuttle/Hubble" along with much more mundane sections such as: "Agricultural Equipment and Supplies" and "Industrial Machinery."

Sample Lot: Men's Rolex Watch. Latest bid when I checked: $1,475. This site is a portal of sorts, where you can see many categories offered by many agencies. For example, "Books and Music" and "Sporting Goods."

Sample Lot: Two bugles. Seven people were bidding when I checked, and the high bid was $200.

AutoAuctions. This is a marketing site GSA created to link you to the private contractors that sell off government vehicles.

Sample Lot: 2015 Ford PIU, an SUV made for police.

Treasury Department Auctions: The other agency very active in holding auctions is the Treasury Department, with roughly 300 sales per year. Treasury often offers in-person previews in California, Florida, New Jersey and Texas. Treasury auctions off "property forfeited as a result of violations of federal law enforced by the Department of Treasury or nonpayment of Internal Revenue Service taxes," according to its website. There are many categories of goods, including concrete items like antiques and coins but also less tangible property like stocks and patents.

Sample Lots: When I first looked, Treasury was auctioning off $1,000 bills for far more than their face value - they went fast. Also available: .33333334 percent interest in an Ohio real estate partnership called Chesterland Productions.

Fannie Mae Auctions: As you can imagine, Fannie Mae auctions off real estate, but actually, so do the GSA and Treasury auctions listed above. In Fannie Mae's case, it owns thousands of properties because people defaulted on their Fannie Mae-insured mortgages.

Sample Lot: a 969-square-foot condo in the Glover Park neighborhood of Washington. Asking price: $299,000.

FDIC Auctions: The FDIC, which insures banks, gets its holdings when they fail and sells some of them via auction to the public. We're talking commercial buildings, land, houses, apartment buildings and - weirdly - bank buildings. The FDIC's auction page even contains a section called "Bargain Properties."

Sample Lot: Two-bedroom two-bath condo in Boca Raton, Florida. Asking price: $229,900.

HUD Auctions: HUD, of course, owns houses nationwide that it obtained when people defaulted on their HUD-insured home loans. HUD's site lists homes for sale in most every state, some fixer-uppers, others in excellent condition.

Sample Lots: Six different homes in Newport News Virginia, ranging from $52,500 to $197,000; 24 homes in Baltimore, one for only $5,000!

USDA Auctions: The U.S. Department of Agriculture also auctions off houses and apartment buildings, but why buy one of those when you can buy a farm or ranch from the USDA? The agency obtains these properties when people default on USDA-insured loans, among other ways. Hint, the text version of USDA's auction site is easier to use.

Sample Lots: A 60-acre ranch in Stanfield, Arizona. Asking price: $435,000. A 110-acre farm in Erie County, Pennsylvania. Asking price: $310,000.

U.S. Marshal's Service Auctions: And finally, the U.S. Marshal's service auctions off some true bling as part of its mission to "combat major criminal activity by disrupting and dismantling illegal enterprises" and "depriving criminals of the proceeds of illegal activity." Once again, there is real estate, but also businesses, cash cars, collectibles - and more.

Sample Lot: 2006 Suzuki GSX Motorcycle. Bid when I looked: $4,050.

As you browse the government auction sites above, you'll notice some link you to additional sites run by private contractors. These contractors have legitimate relationships with the government, but bidder beware: other private companies will try to make their auctions seem like government auctions as a marketing ploy. Always start with the legitimate links provided by the government itself. Good luck!

- Leamy hosts the podcast "Easy Money." She is a 13-time Emmy winner and a 25-year consumer advocate for programs such as "Good Morning America."