Batts pointed to the emergence of ATM-like kiosks called ecoATMs, which are mostly located in suburban malls and exchange phones and electronics for cash on the spot, as a possible factor in the increase of mobile device thefts. Police elsewhere, including in Washington, Los Angeles and Atlanta, also have said they believe that the kiosks are playing a role in these thefts.

Lanier also blames the kiosks, saying more than 200 stolen phones have been recovered from suburban area ecoATM kiosks in just a few weeks. She formed a task force of 18 officers to work exclusively on stolen phones, and said she will fight to shut down every ecoATM kiosk that she can.

"You can drop 35 phones in a day if you want, and that doesn't raise any red flags for this company," Lanier said. She added that the company sells the phones overseas.

Ryan Kuder, director of marketing for San Diego-based ecoATM, called Lanier's position "disheartening." He said that out of 70,000 transactions, fewer than 200 involved stolen phones and only a handful of suspects, and that only one-fifth of phones are sold overseas.

"We've tried to make ecoATM the worst place to sell a stolen phone," Kuder said. EcoATM requires users to submit information such as a driver's license and thumbprint, among other security policies.

Police in Baltimore County — where four of the region's eight ecoATMs are located — say they know of only one such case, and in working with ecoATM security were able to recover the victim's phone.

Holman said MTA police are in daily contact with the company and that none of the property stolen in any MTA incident has been deposited into these machines.

Holman said big profit does not appear to be the motive. A thief might resell a $400 phone for $20 and use the money to get something to eat, she said.

With many of the thefts committed by juveniles, Holman said, the involvement of school police is particularly useful. In some cases, police have circulated surveillance camera images that led school officers to make an identification. Many suspects are believed to be involved in multiple thefts, she said.

MTA police haven't run any plainclothes operations, saying they favor a visible presence that might deter thefts. On a recent weekday, the MTA parked a giant command truck near the Lexington Market bus and subway stop. A satellite tower slowly rose into the sky, a surveillance camera pointed toward the street corner.

Holman said they aren't telling riders not to use mobile devices, "but to be careful."

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