Automated purchasing machine ban moves forward

The machines offer quick cash for small electronics, and some feel the easy money fuels rising smartphone thefts.

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. ••

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