8News Investigates: Do Cell Phone Recycling Kiosks Encourage Thefts?

RICHMOND (WRIC)—Kiosks that offer cash for used electronics are popping up in shopping malls across America. They're convenient, but do they also encourage crime?

Cell phone theft is a growing problem across the country, including here in Central Virginia; it's occurred recently near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus.

“It's money, and it's a crime of opportunity,” said Officer Matthew Ruland of the VCU Police Department.

This spike in cell phone thefts has some cities looking to pull the plug on cash-for-electronics kiosks, which some law enforcement officers and government leaders claim are helping to fuel crime.

“Right now we passed a ban on these machines in Baltimore City,” said Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry.

The machines are called ecoATMs. The company touts them as a great way to help the environment by recycling old phones instead of throwing them away and having their toxic batteries end up in landfills.

“I mean the stats are staggering,” said Drew Spaventa, an ecoATM representative. “If you look around the country, there is an estimated about $5 billion worth of used electronics sittin' in drawers just, you know, decaying in value.”

The way ecoATMs work is simple: anyone with a used cell phone, mp3 player or tablet places the device into the machine, which then determines its market value and dispenses cash on the spot. But critics, including Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Chief of Police Cathy Lanier and members of the Baltimore City Council, say the quick payout could be a driving factor for thieves to steal more phones.

“I am seeing more and more cases of especially the high end—the iPhones, the smartphones—being stolen,” Henry said. “These machines have come in at the same time that we're seeing the spike. That seems a little bit more than coincidence.”

ecoATM touts tough security measures to prevent stolen phones from ending up in its machines; users must scan an official photo ID, give a thumb print and have their photo taken. Transactions are even monitored in real time from the company's California headquarters to ensure the photo on the ID matches the person in front of the machine. ecoATM boasts more than 600 machines in 40 states, and only one in 1,500 phones deposited into its kiosks is stolen.

“We have a long-standing commitment to working with law enforcement, and we're really proud of our product,” Spaventa said.

There are a number of ecoATMs in malls throughout the Richmond metro area. 8News Investigative Reporter A.J. Lagoe put their security to the test.

Lagoe used 8News Photojournalist Ben Arnold's driver's license to trade in a used electronic device. The process took about 10 minutes to complete—and the ecoATM failed to distinguish the difference between Lagoe's and Arnold's faces. Lagoe was ultimately able to get cash using someone else's photo ID.

Lagoe decided to give ecoATM a second chance. He recruited mall shopper Anne to help perform a follow-up experiment; Lagoe lent his driver's license Anne so that she could attempt to get cash for a used phone. This time, ecoATM repeatedly told her it was having a hard time matching her picture to his photo ID.

The fact that ecoATMs are fallible machines is what has some law enforcement members concerned that the kiosks could potentially create a quick-cash incentive for criminals.

While top cops and politicians in both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. have publicly spoken out against ecoATMs' kiosks, when Lagoe contacted law enforcement agencies here in Central Virginia, most told him they were unaware of the machines and had not experienced any related problems.

ecoATM's website says, “ecoATM works hard to ensure that our kiosks are the worst possible option for a criminal to sell stolen property and the best place for the victim's property to end up if it was stolen because we can track and return it.”

However, in order for ecoATM or police to track a stolen phone, knowing its serial number is key. In the event that your phone is ever stolen, report it to police and your wireless carrier immediately.

iPhone users can find instructions for retrieving their phone's serial number on Apple's support page. For assistance with other devices, contact your wireless provider.


Copyright 2013 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond

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