Can automated kiosks actually help catch cellphone thieves?

SEATTLE -- It's no secret smart phones make tempting targets for thieves, who seem to snatch dozens of the devices every week. But, new automated kiosks that at first glance seem to give thieves an easy way to sell stolen phones may actually be helping local police catch criminals.

EcoATM started manufacturing kiosks that allow people to trade in their old phones for cash -- up to $250 -- back in 2008. Last May, the company expanded nationwide, and ecoATMs popped up in Everett, Tacoma, Redmond and Auburn.

The proliferation of ecoATM, which now has nearly 500 kiosks nationwide, has caused concerns among a number of law-enforcement agencies around the country. Specifically, Washington, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has gone on record saying the kiosks motivate criminals to steal phones.

That's a claim Ryan Kuder, ecoATM's director of marketing and communications, disputes, calling statements about widespread criminal use of ecoATMs an exaggeration. And, law-enforcement agencies around Puget Sound seem to agree with him.

Det. Brad Williams with the Everett Police Department said he hasn't seen any evidence cellphone thefts have increased since an ecoATM opened at the Everett Mall.

And, the Seattle Police Department's Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said if anything ecoATMs only help police solve cellphone thefts, with one SPD detective calling the kiosks' safety features fairly well done.

Each ecoATM kiosk captures images of the seller with a remotely monitored camera, requires sellers to scan an ID and submit a thumbprint, and stores the phone's serial number.

"It's not a very smart thief who walks up to a machine that's going to take multiple pictures of them, scan their ID, thumbprint them and tell police they just turned in a phone," Kuder said.

Kuder said ecoATM knows stolen cellphones are a problem, which is why the company is spending money on its security technology. He said he believes that technology can actually help police solve crimes.

Williams, who described himself as a skeptic when an ecoATM kiosk opened in the Everett Mall, said his concerns have mostly been alleviated by the information and cooperation he's received from the company.

On one occasion, a woman had her iPhone stolen only to get an alert from its GPS app when it was activated at ecoATM's San Diego headquarters. The Everett Police Department was able to use ecoATM's images of the phone and its serial number to confirm the woman as its owner, and ecoATM sent the phone back overnight.

In addition to the stolen phone, ecoATM sent the Everett Police Department the seller's photo, thumbprint, ID and more. The phone's owner recognized the seller as the person she believed stole her phone, and the case was recommended for charging.

On another occasion, ecoATM contacted the Everett Police Department itself and provided it with the image of a suspicious seller, who was later recognized and arrested for trafficking in stolen goods.

In addition to situations like the ones above, Kuder said ecoATM reaches out to local police departments and volunteers to report all transactions. And, last month the company announced the appointment of a Law-Enforcement Advisory Board headed by a former sheriff.

"We're not going to be able to build a sustainable businessif we don't have a cooperative relationship with police," Kuder said.

While there are still some concerns about the ecoATM kiosks -- Williams remains worried about their ability to match the seller with the ID presented -- Williams said these automated machines are the future, and law-enforcement agencies and the legal system will need to adapt.

In the meantime, he recommends cellphone owners keep track of their phones serial number and avoid situations that could make their phone an easy target for thieves.