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Baltimore County Takes On Cell Phone Theft: No One’s Happy

P. Kenneth Burns / WYPR

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has plans to try to combat cell phone thefts that have angered some of the people most affected: pawn brokers and the owners of automated purchasing machines, or APMs.

Kamenetz has sent one bill to the County Council that would ban APMs in the county.

This upsets Ryan Kuder, vice president of marketing and communications for San Diego based ecoATM, the only company in the country in the APM business.

“We think that this is something people want and that’s witnessed by the fact that we have done over 21,000 recycled phones just in Baltimore County,” he said.

EcoATM had five machines in Baltimore County until January when General Growth Properties removed them from their malls in Towson, White Marsh and Owings Mills.  The two that remain are at Security Square and Eastpoint malls, according to ecoATM’s website.

Kamenetz’s other bill would regulate the way face to face businesses buy used cell phones.

And that annoys Warren Braverman, manager of Poplar Jewelry and Loan; a pawn shop with locations in Parkville and Dundalk. For one thing, the bill refers to cell phones as “electronic device” and defines them as portable, battery powered devices “capable of communicating through voice, data or text.”

Braverman says that’s an awfully broad definition. “Some of these digital cameras have the ability to text; a Game Boy, a Nintendo Game Boy system, has the ability to text; a PSP; almost everything that we buy now that has a battery has the ability,” he said.

The County Council is to take up the bills during a work session Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Kuder says his company is optimistic about bills making their way through the General Assembly that would establish regulations for the machines.

“What we’re hopeful for is that the state is going to come out [and say] we believe there’s a benefit for these machines to provide this valuable service in Maryland, with regulation, and that’s going to be things we can comply with and we can continue to operate,” he says.

But Kamenetz is not waiting for state lawmakers.  He says allowing the machines to operate in Baltimore County is not good policy.

“We’re taking away the ability for a faceless operator to dispense cash in exchange for an anonymous person and we believe regardless of any identification they present, they are still an anonymous person,” Kamenetz says.

Last year, Baltimore County Police conducted an undercover investigation where detectives swapped ID’s and conducted transactions at ecoATM machines.  Even though the persons conducting the transaction did not match the persons on an ID picture, the observer at company headquarters watching the transaction by way of video link approved it.

“A detective stated he put an individual of a race other than himself into the machine - a driver’s license – and in that particular case the sale was completed,” says Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson who also described a transaction where the gender on the ID did not match the person selling a device.

Kuder says police have not contacted the company about those transactions.

“Because we haven’t been told about the transactions themselves we have no way we can go back and look at them,” he says.

Police spokeswoman Elise Armacost disputes Kuder’s claim. She says detectives were frequently in contact with the company during their year-long investigation into how the machines work. They were particularly interested in how the operation matches the seller with the photo on the ID.

Kuder complains his company is being singled out while those that do business face-to-face can continue.

But Braverman says his business isn’t getting off scot free. Under Kamenetz’s second bill, he would have to get a county license, take photos similar to ID pictures of the sellers and hold phones for at least 18 days before selling them.

Even worse, he says, he can’t give his customers cash; adding many of them are trying to get money to feed their families and get to work.

“They may pawn their phone on Wednesday and then on Friday want to pick their phone up cause they need their phone; they got paid.”

For Kamenetz, cash is king to criminals. 

“If you don’t take the cash out, [criminals will] still steal the phones,” he says.

The county council is expected to vote on the two bills on March 3.