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Do Cell Phone Kiosks Promote Theft?

6:34 PM, Jan 24, 2014   |    comments
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CLEVELAND, OH -- People who are looking for easy money might think they'll get it at machines that look like ATMs that recycle cell phones and give you cash in return.

It sounds like a "green" plan that might net you some bucks.

But law enforcement officers say you might not be the only person thinking about getting cash from your phone. A thief might be thinking about your phone that way too.

That's what happened to a Cleveland woman on a recent Friday night. She and her friend were leaving a busy Lee Road restaurant in Cleveland Heights when they were confronted by two men who tried to grab their purses. The women fought them off until one of the men pulled out a gun, and, as the woman described it, "He racked the chamber."

They handed over their bags.

"I was shaking with rage," said the Cleveland woman, who asked that her name not be used. She called Cleveland Heights police, and, within hours, they found the two women's handbags, dumped -- with their wallets intact.

The only thing missing from their purses were their iPhones.

"The police told us there actually is a great market for these phones that is, in fact, encouraged by the electronic kiosks that are in malls where people can just take a phone -- whether it's theirs or somebody else's -- and put the phone into the kiosk and make money. I had no idea this was happening."

North Olmsted Prosecutor Mike Gordillo knows about it -- because there is such a kiosk at the Great Northern Mall.

"My opinion is these things are vending machines for thieves," he says. "It really encourages the criminal here."

The kiosks are owned by the San Diego-based company ecoATM, which bills the machines as an environmentally friendly way for people to recycle their phones -- and unless they are old models, like flip phones, get some money back in the process.

The machines accept not only cell phones, but iPods, iPads and other tablets.

College students Kevin Nass and Matthew Hamman had never seen a phone-for-cash machine until they encountered the one at Great Northern.

"It's probably an easy way to get rid of phones if they were to take one," Nass said of thieves.

And Hamman, a student at Cleveland State University, says he knows that's happening. The university frequently sends out email alerts to students warning them to be careful when they are walking around campus with their phones out. Because iPhones are such desirable targets, Hamman says the practice of thieves grabbing them has become known as "Apple-picking."

He and Nass were not impressed with the money the ecoATM was offering for the models of cell phones they owned. Both said they would do better using a service like Craigslist.

Some shoppers in North Olmsted weren't aware of the cell phone kiosk.

"Now what they're promoting are people to go steal phones, so they can get some cash out of it," said Fidaa Lahoud.

Dustin Hannah noted that the holiday shopping season might also trigger an increase in cell phone thefts.

"I mean, people are kind of desperate, especially at this time of year," he said.

Kissie Hoffman said she didn't know about the mall kiosk but thought it was a bad idea.

"I don't think that's advisable," she said. "I don't think that is something they should have over there."

EcoATM says it works very hard to deter theft and has put a number of security measures in place at the kiosks. People who use them must provide a driver's license and a thumb print -- and they get their photo taken, which would provide a record, should law enforcement authorities need it. The company also recently hired Max Santiago, former deputy commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, as its director of law enforcement relations.

But not everyone believes that ecoATM's measures are sufficient.

As the Cleveland woman who faced down an armed robber said: "Cell phone goes in, money comes out. Incredible. It's an electronic fence."

City councils in at least two cities -- Riverside, Calif., and Baltimore -- have outlawed the cell phone kiosks.

POSSIBLE PROFIT

If you have a phone, or tablet, or mp3 player of your own you want to get rid of, you might be interested in the ecoATM. You should check out the ecoATM website first. You can price your device, and find out how to erase it before you recycle it.  The website says you could get up to $300 for an iPhone 5s and up to $100 for a 4s.

TRIAD CONNECTION

2 Wants to Know checked. Greensboro's Four Seasons Mall has two ecoATM machines. Greensboro police says they have seen some stolen property passing through those machines. But they offered a potential solution. It's a website called leadsonline. The Report It feature lets you register your property for free. You can register things like jewelry and electronics on their secure website. Police, pawn shops, and ecoATMs are also hooked up to leadsonline. So if you tell the site the property is stolen, it'll be flagged. That way, if it shows up somewhere else, like a pawnshop or ecoATM, police can get your stuff back!

WKYC/ WFMY News 2

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