Cellphone thefts rise as ecoATMs offer fast cash for old phones

WASHINGTON – An environmental effort to make recycling more convenient in the District is having the unintended consequence of increasing crime, says Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier.

As cellphones are made obsolete at astonishing rates in today’s consumer climate, a company has come up with a novel way to encourage their proper disposal: They’ve set up ecoATMs where people can deposit the old phones and make a quick hundred or two. The company then recycles the equipment.

But the fast cash is proving too tempting for thieves, who have increased their efforts at stealing cellphones — outdated or not, Lanier says.

“I’m announcing my new crusade,” she said on Thursday while a guest on WTOP’s “Ask the Chief” show. “Many of these phones are stolen. This is a problem for me.”

EcoATMs work similarly to a cash ATM in that they allow a person to insert their old phone and get up to $250 back, instantly.

Lanier says there are three such devices in the immediate area. A website for the company ecoATM lists up to 10 locations in D.C. and the surrounding suburbs.

“I think this is not a good system here. I’m sure it’s increasing the problem,” she says.

Cellphone thefts are a serious problem nationwide, making up roughly 40 percent of all robberies in the District, New York and other large American cities, officials say.

Law enforcement has worked aggressively to reduce the numbers. In December, Lanier announced she had teamed with D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray to create a website, brickit.dc.gov, which allows people to contact their cell providers, who in turn will disable a phone reported stolen.

Lanier said the database has been very useful for law enforcement, but the resource doesn’t help track stolen phones that are disposed into ecoATMs because those are recycled and can’t be tracked.

Lanier did not have specific numbers that point to a rise in thefts, but said she understands 30 to 35 percent of the phones deposited in the boxes are stolen.

Lanier says the company operating the ecoATMs has been cooperative with law enforcement and is working closely to find a solution.

Lanier spoke on a range of topics during her appearance, including her reaction to a recent Human Rights Watch report about sex crimes in the D.C. area, gun violence and the law regarding scalped tickets. The live blog is below.

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