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‘ATMs’ offer cash for old phones, electronics

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An ecoATM, a kiosk that buys back used electronics directly from consumers for cash, located inside the mall at Easton Town Center. Credit: Dylan Weaver / Lantern photographer

An ecoATM, a kiosk that buys back used electronics directly from consumers for cash, located inside the mall at Easton Town Center.
Credit: Dylan Weaver / Lantern photographer

Kiosks located at shopping centers such as Easton Town Center and Eastland Mall are helping the environment and thieves alike.

The machine, called an ecoATM, is an “automated, consumer self-serve kiosk that quickly evaluates and buys back used consumer electronics directly from consumers for cash,” helping the environment by allowing consumers to recycle their old electronic goods instead of throwing them away, according to its website.

In the Columbus area, ecoATM has recycled thousands of phones since it launched last October, John Hartz, an ecoATM spokesman, said in an email. Nationwide, more than 1 million phones have been recycled using the kiosk. There are seven ecoATMs in Central Ohio, including one at Easton Town Center, two at Eastland Mall and one at a Walmart on Georgesville Road, according to the ecoATM website.

Some students said they would consider using the machines.

“It sounds convenient,” said Jocelyn Browning, a fourth-year in English and public affairs.

Other students said they thought using the machine sounded better than the alternative.

“It’s better than throwing (the phone) away or it ending up in a landfill,” said Carl Bloecher, a first-year in aviation management. “I would use it. It depends on how much they’d give me. (I would also) compare the prices online.”

Gabrielle Stokes, a third-year in human nutrition dietetics, said she wouldn’t use the ecoATM.

“I trade mine in (whenever I get a new phone) to give to Sprint to reuse or recycle,” Stokes said.

To complete a transaction with the ecoATM, sellers put the device in the machine and wait for the kiosk to search for the highest price, according to the ecoATM website. If sellers agree to sell their devices, they follow the instructions, agree to the conditions and are paid instant cash, depending on the phone model and condition.

The kiosk uses dual high-resolution cameras to take sellers’ photos and a serial number capture to track the devices in addition to requiring sellers to submit basic personal information like their driver’s licences and electronic thumbprint by way of identification.

The Columbus Division of Police focused some of its attention on ecoATMs during the summer when it had officers investigating phone thefts.

Criminal Intelligence Analyst for the Columbus Division of Police, Andy Hawkins, and a partner got through the security access when Hawkins used his partner’s ID to sell a phone to the kiosk.

“With ecoATM, you have to provide a photo identification to the kiosk … You can’t put a lot of trust in that because myself and another colleague went to test that out,” Hawkins said. “She’s a female and I used her ID and was standing in front of (the kiosk), and it accepted it and went to the step process to having the phone taken.”

Some students were concerned that stolen devices could potentially be sold to the machines.

“It’s like a pawn shop, but if there is no person there to observe behavior, how do you know (they aren’t a thief)?” Stokes said.

Hartz said the ecoATMs aren’t a cause of phone thefts.

“It’s important to understand that in contrast with ecoATM, there are many places in Columbus where a criminal can quickly sell a stolen phone with no questions asked, including on Craigslist and the black market,” Hartz said.

Although the kiosk has no human presence, employees in San Diego monitor the transactions in real time to “combat fraudulent sales” before the transaction is complete, Hartz said.

The employees check for valid IDs, take pictures of sellers at the kiosk, scan their IDs and collect their thumbprints, Hartz said.

“We fully comply with all relevant laws and regulations wherever we operate, and we voluntarily exceed legal requirements by reporting all of the information we collect for each transaction to the local police on a daily basis,” Hartz said. “With all of these security features, thieves tend to avoid ecoATM. Only a small percentage of all the phones we collect are reported stolen.”

Hartz said if a thief does successfully recycle a stolen phone, ecoATM “cooperate(s) fully with the local police to get the phone returned to the victim, free of charge, and get the thief arrested and put behind bars.”

Columbus Police Commander Bob Meader, however, has not been satisfied with his experiences with ecoATMs.

“Multiple times, (the Columbus Police) requested a hold on a stolen phone, which occurred on the day the phone was listed in their report or the following day, and ecoATM replied that the phone was already shipped overseas,” Meader said.

EcoATM holds all devices it collects for 30 days before sending the devices to San Diego, according to the ecoATM website.

Zack Scott was one of about four officers involved in a Columbus Police phone theft investigation during the summer and said one of the problems with ecoATMs is that the machines don’t report their purchases well enough.

“Pawn shops are required the next day to load up their (purchases) on LeadsOnline,” Scott said. “(EcoATMs) aren’t required to report to LeadsOnline. They only hold the phones for 30 days and ship them overseas … and they don’t upload (the report information) for 30 days.”

LeadsOnline is a service “helping law enforcement catch criminals, while helping businesses reduce the hassles of reporting,” according its website.

Scott said he thinks the solution isn’t to ban ecoATMs, but regulate them.

“My argument is I don’t want to get rid of them — I want them to comply and report,” Scott said. “It’s too easy for conviction in court — your face, your ID and your thumbprint — I would be hesitant to say, ‘Yeah, let’s ban them.’ Let’s make them comply with the same regulation as pawn shops.”

Pawn shops are required to keep information including sellers’ names, ages, addresses, driver’s license numbers, physical descriptions and the items’ sale prices by law, according to the Ohio Revised Code.

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