Kaitlyn Yost peers over the edge of her AT&T kiosk at Towson Mall and points towards a cellphone charging station.
“That’s where it was,” she said, “Right where that station is now is where it used to be.”
Yost is referring to the electronic device exchange machine, ecoATM, which was adjacent to the food court before the company that owns the mall decided to remove the highly controversial machines. This was its link to a rise in stolen electronics in the area.
“You hear of cellphones getting stolen in here on regular basis,” said Yost as she begins to talk about how much controversy the ecoATM caused in the mall. Yost was provided a front-row seat to daily transactions at the kiosk. “Traffic was non-stop most of the time,” said Yost. “They’d just stroll right up, drop the phone in, get the money and then you’d see the same people do it all over again later.”
At least a couple times every day, Yost or one of her co-workers were asked and sometimes even offered money in exchange for use of their IDs by people claiming they forgot or lost their ID but needed to sell their phone for some quick cash, Yost said. “See, the ecoATM would have you scan your ID and put your face in front of the camera to try and make sure you weren’t putting in stolen phones,” Yost said. “But I don’t think that really worked.” Yost said none of her co-workers or herself were ever dumb enough to accept these offers.
Yost said the routine for many of these cell phone thieves would be to steal a phone either in the mall or elsewhere and then take it to Beyond Electronics, a store on the bottom floor of the mall, to have the phone’s memory wiped. Wiping the memory off the phone would make the phone untraceable back to the owner making it ideal to sell at the kiosk.
The manager of Beyond Electronics, who refused to give his name, denied any association with ecoATM. “Anything buy or sell you need ID,” he said, and “we cool,” in response to the legality of his business.
EcoATM, based in San Francisco, is a subsidiary to Outerwall, Inc., the creators of the Red Box movie rental kiosks and the Coinstar coin-exchange kiosks. Unlike Red Box and Coinstar, EcoATM kiosks exchanges cash for unwanted electronic devices such as cell phones and electronic tablets. The company advertises their process as a quick way for users to get cash and save the environment by providing a “clean” way to remove phones without throwing them into the garbage. After receiving the devices, the company refurbishes them or sells their parts to make a profit.
The Baltimore County Police Department was proud to reveal, late in 2013, the results of its crime statistics from Jan. 2013 to June of 2013. The report said that, during that time period, Baltimore County’s crime rate had dropped consistently, in numbers of thefts, violent crimes, arsons and burglaries, according to the five-year average. But the report also shows that the numbers reported robberies had increased as well, particularly in the Towson precinct where cases in all crime categories are higher than the five-year average.
Cpl. Kia Williams of Towson University Campus Police says that many of the crimes committed on the university’s campus are because of the abundance of electronics.
“There is an absolute, consistent correlation between cellphones and robberies both on and off campus,” she said.
Williams said that one of the main reasons electronics are stolen is because of the “culture of cell phones” in society today. She said that electronics are frequently stolen because of their value, size and because people don’t often pay attention to their surroundings, making them easy targets.
“They prey on young adults, they literally watch them and wait for an opportunity to rob them when they least expect it,” Williams said.
While many students and residents in Baltimore County hear about the robberies through email alerts and news outlets, few know where their phones go after they are stolen. While some have been known to go to stores that sell cell phones and exchange them for cash, others have been known to take advantage of the ecoATM kiosks located in various malls across Baltimore County.
Williams believes that the kiosks, while not intentionally, are enabling thieves to dispose of their stolen items for cash. Despite the ID checks, thumbprints scanners and facial recognition software, Williams says they are flawed and lack the instincts and judgments of a living person.
“It’s so simple, anybody can go up to it and use it,” Williams said. “As for IDs, it’s not like they don’t have fakes.”
Williams says that she often speaks at university events to inform students about how they can prevent robberies. She tells students to avoid flashing their cell phones when on the street. Despite her speeches, Williams believes that only law enforcement can really do anything to lower the crime rate.
Possibly one of the final straws in the removal of the ecoATM in Towson Mall happened when a man was held at knifepoint for his cell phone in the food court bathroom on Nov. 22, 2013.
Yost, who was being inteviewed in the food court at the time of the robbery, recalled the event with big eyes and a smile as if it was a treat to tell the story.
“Two guys come shooting on out of the bathroom and next thing you know this old Asian dude comes running right after him screaming,” said Yost, “One of them got away but the other one kinda tripped and the old man caught up and did this drop-kick kinda move…”
(Yost steps back in her kiosk and tries to replicate the kick)
“…and BOOM! The guy hit the wall right there.”
Yost points to the wall a little bit down from her kiosk where cracks are clearly visible where impact was made.
Imani Davis, 19, is busy taking inventory as she closes up her Proactiv kiosk when the question “You weren’t here when that crack was made in the wall, were you?” immediately causes her to lookup from her clipboard with big eyes and say, “Oh no, I was most definitely here for that.”
Davis, whose kiosk sits only a few feet away from where the crack in the wall is, was working when the November robbery happened. “It all happened so quick,” said Davis. “ I didn’t even see them coming from the food court.”
Davis said she remembered an old man catching-up to the thief and kicking him into the wall before the two scuffled. A couple of Panchero’s employees and mall security came to the man’s aid. Davis said she and her co-worker saw the thief then pull out a gun, which allowed to him to escape from the mall.
“Honestly I kinda froze up when it happened, I was caught up staring and a customer ended up pushing us out of the way,” said Davis, “I remember looking across to AT&T people while it was happening and they were all ducking down in their kiosk trying to act like it wasn’t happening.”
Davis pauses, looks at the crack and then shakes her head and lets out a giggle, “Turned out it wasn’t even a real gun, apparently it was just a BB gun.”
Baltimore County officials say that the kiosks are providing criminals with a way of disposing stolen electronic devices easily and for untraceable cash. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz says the he plans to pass a bill that would ban the kiosks within Baltimore County. Baltimore City banned the kiosks in Sept. 2013.
Elise Armacost, the director of Media Relations for the Baltimore County Police Department, said that the ecoATM kiosks contribute to the increase in crime in Baltimore County. In 2013, at least a cell phone was taken in 315 street robberies, according to an unofficial crime report from the county, provided by Armacost. This was higher than the 228 cases reported 2012—an increase of 38 percent.
Armacost says the BCPD has known for sometime that access to these machines has led to an increase in the traffic of stolen electronics. But, she said, the kiosks aren’t the only way to recycle electronics.
“We are watching any establishment that trades electronics for money because as long as their accepting phones there will always be those that want to steal them,” she said.
In response to criticism, EcoATM also created a “Law Enforcement” section on their website detailing the steps the company takes to avoid and report fraud and theft. According to the YouTube video on the site, every kiosk has a camera to allow a live employee to remotely compare the ID presented with the person using the kiosk in real time.
Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson informed The Baltimore Sun in late January that police detectives tested the machines and were able to use the machines with IDs that did not match the person present at the kiosk.
The vice president of marketing for ecoATM, Ryan Kuder, told several news outlets that he feels his company has been unfairly judged by local law enforcement and the media. He stated publicly that since the ecoATMs were installed, county police have asked the company about only 42 devices out of the more than 21,000 devices the company has recycled. He said that not all of them were found stolen.
However, local businesses state they have seen police collect more devices than Kuder claim.
Mansi Kuimar, who has worked at the Cell Phone Fun stand at East Point Mall in Baltimore County for a year, says she has frequently seen Baltimore County police officers at the ecoATM kiosk. Working a few meters from the kiosk, Kuimar says that since it was activated “seven or eight months ago,” she has seen Baltimore County police visit the kiosk occasionally. But a month ago, police were going to the kiosk almost every other day. Although police never tell her the reason they go to the kiosk, Kuimar says they open the machine and take certain devices out.
“They are definitely looking for something in the kiosk, meaning it’s probably stolen,” she said.
Khan Joseph, A sales representative at a Cricket Wireless stand at Security Square Mall, also in Baltimore County, has seen similar activity with the kiosk near his stand. He says the police open the kiosk every week or two to retrieve device. Joseph says he like the concept of the kiosks but believes they only make things more difficult for law enforcement.
“These cops have better things to do than to hunt down machines that only make their job harder,” he said.
Davis says she remembers when they first installed the ecoATM, thinking it would be trouble because the mall had already been a hot spot for stealing phones.
“It’s so easy to get your phone stolen in here,” Davis said. “Especially when you’re working at a kiosk, you can turn around to help a customer and next thing you know it’s gone.”
“There are times I catch myself going to the other side only to realize I had stupidly … left my phone out in plain sight. You got to be smart,” said Davis before pausing and looking to the kiosk next to hers with a frown. “That poor girl over there got her phone stolen Christmas week,” said Davis, nodding in the girl’s direction. “I know she was waiting for it to get dumped to see if her phone was in there.”
“Yup that happened to me,” said Reiko Mudvari, an 18-year-old employee at the Soho kiosk, over the jingling of the jewelry she is putting away underneath the kiosk for safe storage during the night. “I left my phone on the counter when I went to the bathroom and thought it would be safe because I had two co-workers working with me at the time but when I came back it was gone.”
Mudvari looks up from her closing duties she is working on. “My coworkers said they saw nothing which sucks, but that’s the way it happens,” Mudvari said. “They just take them out of the blue.”
On average, while the ecoATM was in the mall, Mudvari said cellphones were getting stolen a couple times every week. “During Christmas time there was a stretch where at least one phone was stolen four days in a row,” said Mudvari.
After Mudvari’s phone was stolen she said she had a strong feeling that it ended up in the ecoATM and tried contacting them via email and telephone with no avail. “I even included my serial number,” said Mudvari trailing off as she resumes closing up shop. “But nope, nothing.”
Since the ecoATM has been removed Davis says things have changed a little but thinks that’s only noticeable because she works right next to where the machine used to be.
Yost says the difference has been noticeable to her as she believes the “shady people” that used to congregate around the kiosk have since stopped showing up as much.
“Now that it’s gone you see them a lot less,” Davis said.
But Davis cautioned that these people are not gone, they just don’t gather around the food court anymore because the kiosk is gone. Davis says the people didn’t just start showing up when the ecoATM was installed so the argument that the kiosk is what brought them in is “nonsense.” Davis said the real reason for the shady people is because the mall “is on a bus line, so it’s what would expect.”
One thing Mudvari, Davis and Yost all have in common is that they all said they do feel better about the mall now that the ecoATM has been removed.
“Although,” Yost said with a wry smile, “part of me wishes it wasn’t gone because I could definitely use some quick cash for my old phone.”