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Delegate drafting bill to crack down on ecoATM kiosks statewide

They attract criminals like honeypots attract bears, says Clippinger, of cash-for-cellphone machines.

ecoATM machine cellphones

Amid fears they may be encouraging street crime, a state lawmaker wants Maryland to restrict them.

Photo by: Fern Shen

As Baltimore City moves closer to a ban on cash-for-cellphone kiosks, an Annapolis lawmaker is drafting a measure that would restrict these automated purchasing machines (APMs) across Maryland.

Del. Luke Clippinger (D-46th) says the devices, which sometimes spit out hundreds of dollars in instant cash for late-model smart phones, are encouraging the raft of brazen cellphone thefts plaguing the city.

“Around my district it’s a great concern,” Clippinger said, in a phone interview yesterday with The Brew. “One person was assaulted for a phone at Randall and Belt streets. I’ve heard of multiple occurrences in South Baltimore, Canton and Patterson Park. It’s a concern in my neighborhood of Riverside.”

The kiosks, made by San Diego-based ecoATM and installed in area malls over the past year, have caused a sensation in the city, since their appearance has coincided with a rash of sometimes-violent street crime, focusing on joggers and pedestrians carrying expensive cellphones.

On Monday a bill to ban APMs in the city received preliminary City Council approval.

Councilman Bill Henry introduced the measure in June, saying that the automated machines – which recognize and price thousands of models of smart phones, tablets, iPods and other mobile devices – could be providing an easy place for criminals to unload “hot” electronics.

City Hall gave a surprisingly warm reception to the ban. (Henry offered an amendment creating an exception to the ban, but couldn’t get a second from his fellow politicians on Monday.)

On to Annapolis

Annapolis is the logical next step for the issue, company representatives and APM critics both agree. There are no ecoATMs located in Baltimore currently, though one was removed from Mondawmin Mall last year reportedly because it sparked complaints by merchants.

But criminals are using ecoATM kiosks just outside the city line, police say. (The area malls where the machines can be found include: Security Square, Eastpoint, Towson Town Center, Columbia and Arundel Mills.) The phone theft incidents are being reported across the city, with city police making arrests after the flurry that broke out in North Baltimore in August.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, a vocal critic of ecoATM, has said the kiosks have stoked phone theft on street-corners and Metro stops and points to examples like the criminals who accosted and punched  pedestrians and transit riders and brought the phones they took to the ecoATM station at Pentagon City.

“These Things are Honeypots”

EcoATM officials say relatively few stolen phones have turned up in their machines and that they are equipped with enough safeguards – a driver’s license and thumbprint scanner, real-time video monitoring by staff watching every transaction – that criminals are inclined to steer clear.

Clippinger, an Anne Arundel County prosecutor, doesn’t buy it. “I have two words to offer in reply: ‘straw’ and ‘purchaser,’” he said.

Getting a conviction on a theft charge, versus the lesser charge of possessing stolen goods, “would be really difficult” if the evidence was video or other data from a self-serve machine, the delegate said.

He has heard the argument that a criminal would be more likely to fence a stolen phone at a pawn shop or sell it at Game Stop, but still thinks the ecoATM’s impersonal technology and instant cash prove irresistible to a criminal.

“The relative ease, or perceived ease, of being able to go to Arundel Mills Mall or Towson Town Center and somebody in San Diego decides whether to give you $400 or not – that’s a real factor,” he said.

“It’s like ‘not feeding the bears’ – these things are honeypots.”

To Ban or Not to Ban

Clippinger acknowledges that the evidence for ecoATMs increasing cellphone theft is anecdotal, but he says the coincidence factor is striking:

“I mean, we see an uptick in crimes where all [the thieves] want is the phones – at the same time these machines have started to arrive.”

He said he understands the appeal of technology that helps keep old electronics, with rare and sometimes toxic metals, out of landfills. But stronger regulation across jurisdictions, he said, is needed to make sure the machines don’t cause a problem with public safety.

“At a minimum, these machines should be made to really conform to the second-hand dealer laws,” he said. “But if we can’t figure out how to truly do that, we should look and see whether we want these things to be in the state of Maryland at all.”

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  • Tom Gregory

    Interesting to note that on local TV news last night reporting on the same cell phone kiosk issues, Ch. 11 attributed “The Baltimore Brew” in making the Rawlings-Blake to Sean Malone “lobbyist for ecoATM” connection. Seems her Mayorness is against banning the kiosks…imagine that.

    • baltimorebrew

      Thanks to Channel 11 for the attribution and to you, Tom, for passing along the info… -fs

  • Jamie Schott

    You take a look at the police blotter in neighborhood newspapers and half of the crimes reported are for stolen phones.

  • Jon

    I don’t doubt that these kiosks have been used to fence stolen cell phones. But I’m skeptical that banning them within the city or state is going to have any real impact on the number of cell phone thefts. In addition to pawn shops, there are dozens of websites where you can print a postage-paid mailing label, drop the phone into a box, and within a few days receive a check — with even less scrutiny than it appears one receives at a kiosk.

    If citizens and politicians really won’t to put an end to cell phone theft, pressure needs to be put on the network providers and equipment makers to find ways to make sure that a phone that is reported stolen can never be used again.

  • baltimorebrew

    NBC News showed in May that it was possible to trick an ecoATM, sending two very-different looking producers who switched driver’s licenses and were still able to sell phones to the device, even though they basically had somebody else’s ID. Both women tried it and got past their system of video screening from San Diego http://www.nbcnews.com/video/nightly-news/52009921#52009921

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