JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
By the way, do you have an old cellphone lying around? There's a company looking for them.
EcoATM has automated machines in cities across the country where you can recycle your old devices for cash. They're placed in public spaces. And officials in Baltimore are concerned the machines increase the incentives for cellphone theft.
Kenneth Burns from member station WYPR has more.
KENNETH BURNS, BYLINE: The ecoATM machines look like any stand-alone automated kiosk in any mall. The one I discovered was in the food court of the Security Square Mall outside of Baltimore. I was among the many that had an old phone at the bottom of a drawer in my house. I pressed the start button to begin selling my phone, and the machine walked me through its process.
(Reading) The first step is to estimate your device's value. I will ask you for your driver's license or ID to start the process. I need to make sure you're at least 18.
After I read the instructions, the machine scanned my driver's license and checked my identity. The transaction is inspected in real time by a real person in San Diego. The machine took the phone after everything is approved. In case you were wondering, my phone was worth nothing based on its condition. The transaction was easy.
For some officials, however, it's too easy. Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry has proposed a ban on the machines.
BILL HENRY: I had gotten complaints from the police department that people were stealing cellphones and taking them out to these machines in the county.
BURNS: The region has seen a rise in cellphone thefts. James Green works for the Baltimore Police Department. He says ecoATM machines are among many places where stolen phones turn up and adds law enforcement officials have been in talks with the company.
We've made some recommendations as to how the data sharing can be improved, and the representatives of ecoATM are working on doing just that.
EcoATM declined to be interviewed but issued a statement saying they greatly appreciate the constructive engagement with law enforcement and the Baltimore City Council. D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier is a vocal critic of the machines. Over the summer, she says her department's investigators traced 200 stolen cellphones to one ecoATM. When D.C. complained, she says the company stopped giving her department information on phones turned in to their machines.
CATHY LANIER: Because there was some negative publicity around the use of these machines that fence stolen phones, and I was quoted in those articles, they stopped sending us the data.
BURNS: The company has since resumed sending the information to D.C. police. EcoATM has 650 machines operating in 40 states. The company was purchased in July by Outerwall, owners of Red Box and Coinstar, for $350 million. EcoATM officials are hoping the merger will help speed up rollout of the machines in more places. As officials in Baltimore were discussing the future of ecoATM here, the Riverside City Council in California recently banned the machines at the recommendation of their police chief, citing the same concerns expressed by Henry and other law enforcement officials. For NPR News, I'm Kenneth Burns in Baltimore.
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