Baltimore singles out the wrong culprit in fight against cell phone theft

Most people have a handful of old, used cell phones sitting around at home. And for years, there's been no way for people to safely and conveniently recycle or resell their old phones for cash. They'd have to sell their old phones online or on Craigslist and hope that the transaction with a stranger happened safely. But usually, the phones would just sit in drawers or be thrown in the trash, polluting soil and water supplies. Finding a way to responsibly recycle a phone for cash was inconvenient and sometimes unsafe.

Our company, ecoATM, created an automated solution to this problem that consumers can find at malls and other public locations to resell their used phones. It's a safe and convenient way for families to turn their unwanted trash into cash they can use while benefiting the environment. Currently, we operate more than 650 ecoATMs nationwide — including some in the Baltimore region — and recycle thousands of phones every day.

But recently, the Baltimore City Council passed legislation that prevents ecoATM from doing business in Baltimore. ecoATM does not operate in the city of Baltimore, and we had no plans to do so. The bill's author and the Baltimore Police Department supported an amendment that would require ecoATM to simply comply with the same laws that apply to every other company which purchases used phones in Baltimore — but the City Council refused the amendment and chose to target ecoATM alone. The ordinance has no practical effect on cell phone theft in the city, nor does it do anything to address the many phone resale options that do far less to cooperate with police.

ecoATM is the most transparent buyer of mobile phones in the region, period. For every phone we have ever collected in the area, a live person has monitored the transaction, and we have made the details available to law enforcement, including the serial numbers, the seller's information, photos and thumbprints. In return, the City Council chose to ban ecoATM, and ecoATM alone.

Long before ecoATM came to the region last fall, cell phone theft was rising fast around the country. Thieves stole phones, sometimes during violent crimes, and sold them at swap meets, via Craigslist, at trade-in centers, to "a guy they know," and into other black markets where the police lack visibility. These unscrupulous buyers didn't care if the phone was stolen — they didn't even ask. As a result, police never knew where stolen phones were going, who was stealing them, or how to stop them. Crime continued to increase.

ecoATM is different. For each transaction, ecoATM requires a valid government issued ID, which is verified in real time by a real person. The ID is matched with photos taken of the seller at the kiosk, and a thumbprint is collected. Identifying information is collected from the phone, and every transaction is reported to the local police. We tell sellers all of this upfront. With so many other ways to sell a stolen phone with no questions asked, thieves tend to skip the ecoATM.

On rare occasions, a thief will try to sell us a stolen phone. We check every phone against a national stolen phone database, and if it appears stolen, we reject the transaction. If we ever do discover a stolen phone in an ecoATM, we work closely with police to return the phone to the victim and provide whatever evidence we can so police can investigate, apprehend and prosecute the criminal. If your phone is stolen and it winds up in an ecoATM, we'll get it back to you at our cost. Nobody else makes that claim.

Because ecoATM makes it a point to record information about everyone who recycles their phone with us — and proactively share it with law enforcement — we are the best company to work with police to help find a solution to the problem of cell phone theft. Most of the police departments we work with view us as a valuable tool and excellent data source to help in their battle against crime.

We've worked closely with the Baltimore Police Department to understand its concerns and develop technologies that create a safer place for people to sell their phones and provide the police with much-needed data to help catch cell phone thieves. We will continue to engage and work cooperatively with law enforcement and public officials and plan to work hard in Annapolis toward a well-crafted bill that will elevate the level of transparency in the entire industry and make life safer and more convenient for people throughout Maryland.

Mark Bowles is founder and chief marketing officer of San Diego-based ecoATM, Inc.

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