I-TEAM: How is a cellphone kiosk like an ATM for thieves?

Cellphones stolen and sold at ECO ATMs skyrocket in Augusta during pandemic
Published: Oct. 19, 2020 at 3:33 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - As cellphone usage increased to record numbers in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the I-Team found criminals swiping cellphones for cash also spiked locally.

We found thieves cashing in stolen cellphones at ECO ATM kiosks increased 50 percent in the first half of 2020 compared to the year before.

ECO ATM kiosks are stand-alone kiosks available locally to deposit a cellphone in an environmentally-friendly manner while also making a few dollars for the device.

The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office says the ease of the exchange makes it a great crime of opportunity for criminals looking to make a quick buck.

The I-Team found data from the PreyProject, a device theft and tracking company, confirms smartphones are the most stolen type of device around the country. Cellphones make for a perfect crime of opportunity because they’re small, easily misplaced, and provide a vector for fast money for crooks.

It’s something Veronica Kinsey, of Augusta, learned all too well.

“I left it laying on a counter at Walgreens," Kinsey said. "He got $35 for my phone.”

An incident report filed with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office says as Kinsey went to the photo center to check her order, another customer nearby seized the moment to swipe her phone and later sell it for $35 at a local Walmart ECO ATM. Only $35 for a fairly new smartphone Kinsey had recently purchased for $800 she says.

The company’s website even explains the ease of the transaction.

“Eco ATM kiosks are convenient, safe, and instantly rewarding.” The consumer places the device into a slot and cash is distributed based on the assessed value of the device by the machine.

Kevin Links is a financial crimes investigator for the RCSO. He says he was not surprised to find Kinsey’s stolen device in a kiosk.

“This is so easy for thieves to make money," Links said.

To know just how easy and prevalent this has become locally, we filed an open records request with the sheriff’s office and Links. We found a 50 percent rise in the number of stolen cellphones being sold to kiosks in 2019 compared to 2018 overall. We looked further and found another 50 percent spike in stolen cellphones sold to kiosks in the first half of 2020 compared to 2019, most of which happened during the months of the shutdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“Eco ATM gets the device and runs the IME number or serial number it will come back as a hit through leads online which is a source we use to track stolen electronics," Links said.

We found ECO ATMs are very similar to a pawn shop. Sellers must provide their identification and the device’s serial number to the machine. Next, the information goes through a database of stolen items. Law enforcement is notified when there is a match to a stolen device.

That same database is what helped Richmond County investigators track Kinsey’s phone. It’s another challenge to find the person that stole the phone, says Links.

“What some of the investigations are revealing is that the person who sells the cellphone has either bought it from someone or the suspect gets them to sell the phone for them," Links said.

We analyzed other crime data and found only 11 percent of the recovered stolen smartphones led to an arrest in 2019. The statistics were thankfully more promising in 2020 with 33 percent of suspects arrested for selling stolen phones to ECO ATM kiosks.

Arrest or not, ECO ATM kiosks make it difficult to sell a stolen phone a second time around.

“If they do sell a phone and it is a stolen item, then they are banned from selling any devices through an ECO ATM nationwide," Links said.

For Veronica Kinsey, she lost much more than her $800 phone.

“All of my son’s pictures from football was on there, my family pictures," Kinsey said.

Those were priceless memories that no database or investigator have so far been able to help her to recover.

We did learn the best chance at getting your stolen cellphone back is to report it stolen to law enforcement – immediately. The consumer (or victim) must also provide investigators with the IMEI serial number of the device. That number is on your phone in settings. Once investigators have that number, they are able to enter it into the database which will track stolen property.

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