Faced with a rash of reported mobile device thefts, local lawmakers want to ban the automated purchasing kiosks that have cropped up at area shopping centers and allow customers to instantly resell phones, tablets and music players.
The proposals have drawn criticism from ecoATM, one of the largest players in the emerging industry, which says its devices — sometimes called "reverse vending machines" — are being unfairly blamed for a theft problem that is much larger than its business.
Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry this week introduced the ban, and he and other council members say police officers have told them the kiosks are driving device theft. The police chief in Washington has been a vocal opponent of the machines, and city legislators say they are urging counterparts across the state to follow suit.
Ryan Kuder, director of marketing for San Diego-based ecoATM, said that stolen phones represent less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the company's business. He said ecoATM helps police track customers who resold stolen phones. The machines are monitored by security cameras and require sellers to submit a driver's license and thumbprint.
Kuder noted that the company marked a milestone this week — the purchase of 1 million phones — and he insisted: "When we collect a stolen phone, we return it."
"Stolen phones have been a big black hole [for law enforcement]," Kuder said. "They get stolen, they get sold, and nobody knows where they go."
Police in the area say device thefts have indeed been a problem, and transit police this spring made a public awareness push to prevent mobile device theft after some brazen thefts of devices from passengers.
"We do have a high number of cellphone robberies," city police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.
But Guglielmi said the idea that they end up being sold at ecoATMs may only be a hunch. Police in the city and county have only linked one theft to the kiosks. In that case, according to a Baltimore County spokeswoman, the stolen phone sold at a county ecoATM kiosk was recovered by police in cooperation with the company.
Guglielmi said ecoATM officials last week approached Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, who criticized such kiosks after a conversation with D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier. Company officials said they would sit down with police to explain how their company works.
There are no ecoATMs in the city and eight around the Baltimore beltway. One at Mondawmin Mall was shut down after drawing crowds that overwhelmed the shopping center's staff.
Still, council members say police officers in their districts have been telling them that the kiosks are problematic.
"Unfortunately, along comes a technological advancement that allows people to sell MP3s and stolen phones without any human interaction whatsoever," Henry told council colleagues when he introduced the bill.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said police told her that thieves are stealing from city residents and turning cellphones and devices in for cash at county malls.
"These kiosks have upped the crime rate in Baltimore City, because if you steal a cellphone you just go out to a mall in the county and you get cash," Clarke said. "You get cash from this machine for putting in the cellphones that you stole. It's increasing the car break-ins and the thefts of cell phones."
Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he believed the kiosks were increasing the incentive for thefts from school children, as well.
"This is a big problem around our schools. A lot of our school children are being robbed of their cell phones," he said.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor "appreciates councilman Henry's concern," and wants to hear from Batts on the issue.
Drew Spaventa, another company official, said many cities work closely with ecoATM but others have a "knee-jerk reaction that has to do with the people who hear there's stolen phones, and a kiosk that buys them back."
Then, he said, the perception that ecoATM is to blame "takes on a life of its own."