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Phone recycling kiosks may lead to increased cell theft, say police

By Hayley Fox
Published: Wednesday, May 16, 2012, at 01:09PM

These cell phone ATMs dispense money and allow people to sell (or donate) used phones.

The cell phone theft rate in Downtown is up 38 percent from last year, said Capt. Horace Frank, and the installation of new cell phone ATMs may only cause that number to increase.

Phone recycling machines called ecoATMs are popping up all over Southern California, with locations in Glendale, Culver City, Sherman Oaks and others. The machines use advanced technology to evaluate and purchase cellphones from people looking to sell.

The ATM uses artificial intelligence, electronic diagnostics and other evaluation techniques to determine what type of phone is being turned in as well as its value.

"It's a very, very smart machine," said Anita Giani of ecoATM, a San Diego-based company.

The seller is given options of either accepting the purchase offer or donating the money and/or the cell phone to a selection of charities. The ATM company then keeps a percentage of the profits.

Mobile devices are thrown out at a quicker rate than any other type of electronics, reports the Los Angeles Times -- but only 11 percent of the devices are recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

While some customers average an $80 payout per phone, even if the phone has no value customers can still turn it in for recycling, ecoATM Chief Executive Tom Tullie told the L.A. Times.

EcoATM has recycled more than a quarter million phones -- seventy five percent of them have found second homes, said Giani.

But Capt. Frank says the phone ATMs make it easy for people to steal phones and turn them around quickly to make a profit.

"With these kiosks and with the way they're popping up, you're going to see more cell phone thefts," predicted Frank.

Giani argued that ecoATM have measures in place to deter people from trying to cash in on stolen phones. When someone tries to sell a cell phone at any machine, the ATM takes a photo of their drivers license and obtains a fingerprint of the seller.

"They'd really be pretty foolish if they were going to try and sell a stolen phone," she said.

But Frank said these systems aren't sufficient deterrents: Some people may be using a fake drivers license and even if the license is valid, the ATMs don't have access to the police database to cross-reference names.

He suggests that ecoATM initiate a waiting period so after the phone is turned in, no money is dispensed until the license is validated. He said the company should also work with local law enforcement to find out if the phone was reported stolen. If the person obtained the phone legally, they'd have no problem waiting for a payout, Frank reasoned.

Although there are no kiosks planned for Downtown at this time, new ecoATMs are scheduled to appear in Burbank, Westminster, and other Southland locations over the next three weeks.

Frank said the rise of cell phone thefts in LA is only a microcosm of similar trends going on across the country. Many of the Downtown thefts occur when people leave phones in a visible location in their car, or out on table at a when they get up to use the restroom. Some even occur as they are holding or talking on the phone as they walk down the street.

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