The company that runs malls in Towson, Columbia, Owings Mills and White Marsh is removing cellphone-recycling kiosks from its Maryland locations after politicians voiced concerns that the machines contribute to cellphone thefts.

General Growth Properties is taking ecoATMs out of all its properties in the state, a spokesman for the Chicago-based company said Tuesday. The kiosks, which have been called "reverse vending machines," allow users to receive cash for used phones and other small electronic devices.

Local politicians have blamed the machines for contributing to cellphone thefts, an allegation that representatives of the ecoATM company say is unfounded. Baltimore's City Council banned the machines in September.

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, who has been researching the machines, said General Growth officials told him they would remove them at Owings Mills Mall, Towson Town Center and White Marsh Mall. In Howard County, The Mall in Columbia — owned by General Growth — also has them, according to ecoATM's website.

Marks said he had been working with Council Chairman Tom Quirk to explore whether to introduce a bill to ban or regulate the machines. Marks said he worries that the kiosks might have contributed to robberies but isn't sure whether banning them is a solution.

"We'd been looking at this issue for several months," said Marks, a Perry Hall Republican. "It's prudent to at least remove the kiosks from these [malls] while we'll dealing with the larger issue."

In an email Tuesday, a General Growth spokesman confirmed that the company was "in the process of having them removed" at its Maryland malls but declined to comment on the reasons behind the decision.

Ryan Kuder, vice president of marketing for San Diego-based ecoATM, called the move disappointing. Since April, people have recycled more than 21,000 devices at ecoATMs in Baltimore County, he said. Of those, county police have asked for about 42 devices for investigative purposes, but not all of them were found to have been stolen, he said.

The company says its machines photograph each person selling a device, and require a thumbprint and valid ID from each customer — and that ecoATM employees visually monitor the transactions remotely to ensure that customers match the photographs on their IDs.

"We are very proactive in helping law enforcement fix this problem," Kuder said.

According to its website, ecoATM also operates machines at shopping centers in Bel Air, Dundalk, Glen Burnie and Woodlawn.

In a statement to The Baltimore Sun, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Police Department said Chief Jim Johnson and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz are working with the County Council to discuss ways to reduce the theft of electronics.

"Any type of buy-sell business that provides the suspects involved in electronics theft a way to obtain cash for the stolen items is a factor in the crime," Cpl. Cathy Batton said. "This is not unique to cellphones, nor is it unique to ecoATM."

Kuder said ecoATM provides a safe, environmentally friendly way for people to recycle electronics and make money at the same time. Cellphone theft is a problem nationwide, and company officials say ecoATM has become a scapegoat.

"Most of the market for used phones is completely unregulated and underground," said Kuder, noting that people can sell stolen phones online and elsewhere. "We believe the fingers are being pointed in the wrong direction."

alisonk@baltsun.com

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