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Baltimore Officials Want To Unplug Phones-For-Cash Kiosks

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EcoATMs take old cellphones, MP3 players and tablets in exchange for cash. But the automated kiosks, operating 650 machines in 40 states, are getting bad reviews from police, who are concerned the machines are a magnet for thieves.

The transaction is fairly simple. The machine walks you through the process, scanning your ID to certify you're over 18 and verify your identity. An ecoATM employee inspects the transaction remotely in real time. Once the seller's identity is verified, the kiosk takes the device and assesses its value. You get the cash, and the device is recycled.

The company was purchased in July by Outerwall, formerly called Coinstar, for $350 million. EcoATM officials are hoping the merger will speed the rollout of the machines in more places.

But in Baltimore, officials are trying to ban them.

"I had gotten complaints from the police department that people were stealing cellphones and taking them out to these machines in the county," says Baltimore City Council member Bill Henry.

The region has seen a rise in cellphone thefts. James Green, director of government affairs for the Baltimore Police Department, says ecoATM machines are among many places where stolen phones turn up. Green says law enforcement officials have been in talks with the company.

"We've made some recommendations as to how the data sharing can be improved, and the representatives of ecoATM are working on doing just that," he says.

EcoATM declined to be interviewed, but issued a statement saying they greatly appreciate the constructive engagement with law enforcement and the Baltimore City Council.

The company also has a page on its website dedicated to addressing "misperceptions" about the kiosks, outlining safeguards against the selling of stolen devices as well as how they use information about the individuals and devices in case theft is reported.

Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier is a vocal critic of the machines. Over the summer, she says her department's investigators traced 200 stolen cellphones to one ecoATM machine. When the D.C. police complained, Lanier says the company stopped giving her department information on phones turned in to its machines.

"Because there was some negative publicity around the use of these machines that fence stolen phones, and I was quoted in those articles, they stopped sending us the data," Lanier says.

The company has since resumed sending the information to D.C. police.

In California, the Riverside City Council banned the machines in August at the recommendation of its police chief, citing the same concerns expressed by Baltimore City Council member Henry and law enforcement officials.

EcoATM says on its website that "less than 1 out of every 4,000 devices" it collects are later reported lost or stolen.

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