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City Hears Proposal To Ban EcoATMs

P. Kenneth Burns

Time was you couldn’t do much with that old cell phone lying around the house, other than try to sell it online. Now a company called ecoATM offers you an opportunity to trade it in for cash.  The machines have been in the Baltimore market since last August and have caught the attention of Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry, who introduced a bill to ban them from the city in June.

Henry said that the machines may be fueling cell phone thefts.  “The police department had noticed a connection between a spike in cell phone thefts and the appearance of these automated purchase machines in and around Baltimore City,” he said, adding that they appear to violate the city’s second hand dealer laws.

Jim Green, the city police director of government affairs, said a recent report to the city council  found that while there has been a spike in the number of cell phone thefts across the region, there is no hard data to suggest that the ecoATM machines are related.

There are 18 ecoATM’s in Central Maryland and York County, Pa.  The only one in the city, at Mondawmin Mall, was removed by mall management for reasons that are not clear.  “I have been told that it was removed at the request of the police department; I have been told it was removed on their own,” Henry said.  

Ryan Kuder, ecoATM’s Communications and Marketing Director, said the machine was too popular and generated long lines.  “These lines were starting to back up and it was causing some stress on the mall managers for crowd control,” he said.  General Growth properties, the operators of Mondawmin Mall, declined to comment.

Kuder said it is important for his company to cooperate with law enforcement to combat cell phone theft.  But Chief Cathy Lanier, of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and a vocal opponent of ecoATM, said the company has stopped giving her department information on transactions. “They were sending them to us; we made several criminal cases based on the data they sent us.  We were literally able to take armed robbery suspects off the streets with that data.  Now because of the negative publicity, they don’t do it anymore.”

Lanier said that her department has traced more than 200 stolen phones to one machine.  Kuder said the closest machine to Washington, D.C. is in Fair Oaks, Va., an hour and a half from the District by public transportation. Lanier countered, however, that until recently there were two machines just across the District line, one in Prince Georges County and one in Arlington, Va. “We worked with the local jurisdictions there to highlight that these machines were present because a lot of jurisdictions didn’t know they were there and that most jurisdictions’ second hand dealer laws prohibit them from operating there,” said Lanier.

Officials in Baltimore, however, said they have been encouraged by talks with the company.  And Henry said he could make changes to his bill.  “If they were willing to change their operations in order to meet our existing laws then I am sure that we can work something out,” he said.