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Continued: As used-phone market booms, so do thefts

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

Alarmed that the kiosks are little more than an easy way for thieves to unload their stolen goods, a politician in Maryland wants to ban the machines from his state. The Baltimore City Council banned them from the city. And police in Daytona Beach, Fla.; Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., have met the arrival of the kiosks with concern.

A company spokesman said ecoATM’s security measures make it difficult for thieves to fence stolen electronics through the machines. To sell a phone at an ecoATM kiosk, the seller must swipe a driver’s license and supply a thumbprint. Video cameras record and photograph the transaction. And, the company said, an employee watches each transaction remotely to compare the picture on the ID to the person selling the phone.

If a phone turns out to be stolen, the thief’s picture will have been recorded and supplied to the police.

“We can provide [the police] with multiple photographs of the person who sold us the device,” said company spokesman Ryan Kuder.

The company acknowledges that despite these precautions, some stolen phones get through its screening but said it’s less than 1 percent. A study by the Columbus (Ohio) Police Department of 1,000 transactions at four ecoATMS in that city determined that 9 percent of the transactions involved stolen phones — a figure ecoATM representatives disputed.

Since arriving in Minnesota in April, the company has recycled 10,000 devices, said Kuder, with “a dozenish” phones being returned to the Minneapolis Police Department after the police asked for the phone.

The company expects strong growth, with estimates of 300 million to 500 million old phones lying around in the United States. The phone-recycling rate is somewhere around 11 percent, said Kuder, which despite being low is still better than it was a few years ago. The company recycled its millionth device in April.


The real culprits in fencing stolen phones, say both the ecoATM spokesman and the guys at TechBank, are fly-by-night operators who post on Craigslist or work on the street, promising to fix phones that have been reported stolen so that they disappear from the stolen phone lists maintained by phone carriers. That’s called cleaning a phone’s electronic serial number, or ESN.

A man in Brooklyn Park advertised on Craigslist this week saying he could clean a phone’s ESN. E-mails sent by the Star Tribune to his listing did not receive a response.

“Even nail salons and food trucks will buy phones,” said Kuder, the ecoATM spokesman.

Some of those phones end up overseas in China or South America, where a used iPhone can sell for hundreds of dollars more than in the United States, where phone prices are artificially low because they’re subsidized by the phone carriers.

Schmit, the U student body president, said he recently bought the latest iPhone. He said that he still has two earlier models of the iPhone lying in a drawer in his room and that he plans to sell them soon.

A friend will show him how to do it on Craigslist, he said.


Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747


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