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City Council poised to ban machines that give cash for phones

In an attempt to provide thieves one less outlet to collect cash for stolen cellphones, the Baltimore City Council is poised to vote Monday to ban automated kiosks that give money on the spot for used electronics.

Council members threw aside a compromise between the police and the leading manufacturer of the "reverse ATMs" that would have authorized the machines in Baltimore if they could meet the same reporting standards as pawn shops.

A San Diego-based company that makes the machines, ecoATM, argues that banning their kiosks — which require individuals selling phones to scan their driver's license, be photographed and provide a thumb print — will just drive the industry underground to unregulated markets.

"What we have been doing is working closely and cooperatively with police departments," said Ryan Kuder, a spokesman for ecoATM. The company wants to work with the City Council "to try and come up with a proactive solution," he said.

An ecoATM temporarily operated inside Mondawmin Mall last year, but none is located in the city now. Sixteen machines are scattered throughout the region in Annapolis, Columbia, Owings Mills and elsewhere. EcoATM has 600 reverse vending machines in 40 states.

Donte Johnson of Park Heights said he wants the city to allow the machines. Banning them from Baltimore won't stop the market for stolen cellphones, he said.

"That's the downside, a lot of people buy stuff hot on the street," Johnson said on a recent day at Security Square Mall in the Woodlawn area of Baltimore County, where he inspected an ecoATM.

"I think it's a good thing. Think about it, you could get a couple of dollars for most of those phones that are sitting around the house," Johnson said.

Police in Baltimore and elsewhere have said they believe the kiosks are driving theft, and ecoATM acknowledges that stolen phones end up in their machines. Kuder said, though, they represent only a fraction of the stolen phones that thieves try peddling, especially via the Internet.

Councilman Bill Henry, whose North Baltimore district includes the Guilford, Belvedere and Chinquapin Park neighborhoods, said the consensus among his colleagues is that the reverse vending machines help thieves.

Henry had spearheaded efforts to reach a compromise, but said he supports the will of the council to ban the machines.

"I am not unhappy, especially given the fact that we are seeing this spike in cellphone thefts," Henry said. "People are particularly sensitive to any possible way of disposing of stolen goods."

A rash of cellphone robberies was reported around North Baltimore in August.

If Baltimore passes the ban, the city will become the first local government in the region to take action on the machines. The kiosks were banned last month in Riverside, Calif.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake supports the council's proposed ban, and said cellphone thefts will occur whether or not the machines are allowed. She called on cellphone companies to be part of a solution.

"A lot of the phones are only a commodity because the technology hasn't caught up to the petty thieves of today," Rawlings-Blake said. "If the cell phone companies can be partners in reducing crime with simple technology, they should, and they need to hear from all of us."

In the meantime, adding barriers for thieves to make money on stolen cellphones is motivation for council members Helen Holton, William "Pete" Welch and Edward Reisinger, who represent western and southern parts of Baltimore.

"When you think about the number of people today that are having phones snatched out of their hands and someone taking it to a kiosk and getting cash, I think there is a better way we can do things," Holton said.

Welch said while he appreciates ecoATM's efforts to work with police, he isn't satisfied with the controls the machine manufacturer has in place.

EcoATM doesn't yet have the technology to record serial numbers from all the cellphones it buys, which is a requirement for second-hand goods dealers in the city. On older devices, the serial numbers are printed behind batteries, while retrieving the code on newer phones can be done electronically.

The city's second-hand goods law also requires dealers to get a license from the city and report purchases to police daily.

Because the reverse vending machines in circulation now don't meet those requirements, they're effectively banned already. But some council members see the legislation before them Monday as necessary protection for the future, Henry said.

Jim Green, director of government affairs for the Baltimore Police Department, said the department supports the council, but hopes to see a statewide solution.

"We in law enforcement are approaching this regionally," Green said. "We believe collectively that this issue must be dealt with at a state level so that there is an even playing field."

Several state lawmakers, including Del. Luke Clippinger, have said they intend to introduce legislation to regulate the machines when the General Assembly meets in January.

Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who works as a prosecutor, said he wants to find a way to require more collaboration with law enforcement, including from the kiosk manufacturers and the cellphone providers.

"They are very troubling machines to me," Clippinger said. "We're not going to stop cellphone thefts, but you can at least take a step forward."

Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of Baltimore's House delegation in Annapolis, said he also supports regulating the industry.

"When we were having trouble years ago from people stealing a television to get 50 or 100 bucks, people said pawn shops were helping to create a criminal operation," Anderson said. Now, record-keeping requirements can help track down thieves, he said.

Legislation hasn't come before officials in Anne Arundel, Howard or Baltimore counties, although Baltimore County Councilman David Marks said he is investigating whether action is necessary.

Marks said he has increasingly heard complaints from constituents about cell phone thefts when he holds community meetings in Towson. He has asked Police Chief Jim Johnson for a report on the machines.

"I am very interested in this issue, given the amount of criminal activity we seem to be seeing in Towson," said Marks, a Republican from Perry Hall. "But I'm not going to introduce any legislation until I see the report from the police department and until I talk to the administration."

Kuder, the ecoATM spokesman, said he hopes local leaders will see the machines as an asset to the community, the environment and the police. He said the average household has between five and six unused cellphones and Americans will purchase 150 million new devices this year.

"There are mountains of toxic waste that are building up," Kuder said. "It's a problem that is not going away."

Baltimore Sun reporters Alison Knezevich and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

An earlier version of this story misstated Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's stance on the cellphone kiosk ban.

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