A bill that outlaws automated purchasing machines like the two in Franklin Mills was voted favorably out of committee last week.
But before calling Bill 130693 for final passage, its author, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, wants to form a task force with representatives of the Police Department, the district attorney’s office and SEPTA to make sure the city will do all it can to reduce mobile phone thefts, which she called the city’s No. 1 crime.
With thousands of smartphone thefts reported each year, Philly has become the crime’s national capital. To further combat so-called “Apple Picking,” city officials on Monday joined an international effort to encourage manufacturers to develop “kill switches” for stolen phones.
An automated purchasing machine scans a smartphone or other small electronic device, makes an offer for it and shoots out cash for a device it accepts. EcoATM has two “electronics recycling kiosks” in Franklin Mills. Baltimore’s City Council banned the machines in September, claiming they reward phone thieves with easy-to-get cash.
EcoATM representatives denied that last week in testimony before council’s Committee on Public Safety and said only a very small number of devices its machines have purchased were found to be stolen.
There have been more than 5,800 thefts involving mobile phones in Philadelphia so far this year, Police Department adviser Francis Healy told the committee. That statistic has been on the rise since 2010, he said.
EcoATM’s Max Santiago and David Mersten said their company’s machines have recycled more than 35,000 electronic devices in Greater Philadelphia and have found that just 43 phones, about two-tenths of 1 percent, were identified as stolen.
Santiago, the company’s director for law enforcement relations, said that ecoATM personnel monitor each transaction and that a government ID, photos and a thumbprint are required of each person who sells a phone or other device.
EcoATM sells the used devices on what Healy called the “secondary market” or recycles the parts. That market in used phones is what is fueling the thefts, Healy said. SEPTA’s police chief, Thomas Nestel, told committee members that phone thefts have increased on the transit authority’s lines since 2010.
Nestel said smartphone robberies on SEPTA lines went from 193 in 2010 to 467 in 2012. So far, there have been 216 this year.
On Monday, Mayor Michael Nutter, Councilwoman Reynolds Brown and Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane joined the international Secure Our Smartphone initiative that is headed up by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and London Mayor Boris Johnson.
Nutter said he wants phone makers to design their products with technology that would render stolen devices inoperable, “negating the incentive to steal them in the first place.” International cooperation is needed, Schneiderman said Monday, because street-level smartphone thieves feed a global market that is too large and too lucrative for any single community to stop. ••