As used-phone market booms, so do thefts

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2013 - 6:48 AM

Mall kiosks and other outlets aim to cash in. Some are diligent about turning in stolen items.

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TechBank’s Austin White-Pentony (at computer) and sales associate James Morris helped customer C.J. Whidby of Woodbury.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA • jkoyama@startribune.com,

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Anyone with a used phone to sell — their own or someone else’s — can walk into a mall in the metro area and get cash for it from a machine, which alarms authorities confronting a rash of phone thefts downtown and near the University of Minnesota campus.

A convenience for the legions of adults who upgrade their phones each year, the ecoATM kiosks are just one of the latest places to sell a used phone, including Best Buy stores, online marketplaces such as Craigslist, eBay and Swappa.com, and numerous pawnshops and phone stores.

University Police Chief Greg Hestness warned a state Senate panel this week that the practice of stealing iPhones — known as “Apple picking” — has thieves coming to the U campus to find students to rob, often by flashing a gun.

“It’s been a huge problem here on campus recently,” said Mike Schmit, the student body president. “Just about everybody’s got their smartphone, plus most of us have a laptop.”

On Wednesday, an armed robber confronted a woman near 6th Street and 14th Avenue SE. at 9:20 a.m. as she walked to class, ripping away her backpack and taking her wallet, smartphone and iPad. It was the 29th reported robbery on or near the Minneapolis campus since Aug. 1.

Even an older model smartphone can be worth hundreds of dollars on the resale market, and they’re everywhere: A majority of American adults now carry a smartphone, according to a Pew Research Center study released this summer.

With the average user holding on to their phone for less than two years before upgrading, a booming used-phone business worth billions of dollars in the United States alone has people such as Austin White-Pentony hoping to cash in.

TechBank: expanding

The owner of a mall kiosk that buys used phones, White-Pentony and two friends opened TechBank just a few months ago. Their only location, for now, is on the upper level of Rosedale Mall in Roseville, where they buy several used phones a day.

Almost from the start, they’ve had to screen out thieves and stolen phones from their legitimate customers. Their second customer sold them a phone that just days later was reported stolen, said co-owner Aklilu Dimore. He turned it in to the Roseville Police Department, losing money in the process.

To prevent more losses like that one, the company checks each phone’s Mobile Equipment Identifier, or MEID number, which is displayed in the phone’s settings.

They run that number against a database maintained by the phone carriers of phones that have been reported lost or stolen.

If they find that the phone has been lost or stolen, they have a signal to alert mall security.

Even then, thieves can run. A woman who was trying to sell TechBank a phone that showed up on the carrier’s list of stolen phones ran off as a mall security guard approached, screaming that her phone wasn’t stolen. She escaped the guard, who managed to get a photograph of the woman’s license plate as she drove out of the mall’s parking lot. The photo was turned over to authorities.

TechBank will expand soon, said White-Pentony, who added that the used-phone market needs legitimate businesses like theirs.

Another kiosk: ecoATM

Among TechBank’s biggest competitors is ecoATM, which operates hundreds of ATM-like kiosks nationwide, with 13 in Minnesota, including one on the lower level of Rosedale, just a stone’s throw from TechBank.

The kiosk is something like an advanced vending machine, with a large bay on the front for accepting used technology. Billed as an electronics recycler, the machine’s focus is on phones, although it also accepts MP3 players and tablets. The company is owned by Outerwall Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., which also owns the Redbox DVD rental business.

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