A Spokane man availed himself of new technology in June allowing cellphone owners to recycle their old devices for cash at NorthTown Mall.
The problem? The phone wasn’t his to sell.
Toby Anderson, 39, was booked into Spokane County Jail this week facing charges of trafficking stolen property. Anderson told police he was given the device, an iPhone 5S, by a man he knew was homeless and addicted to drugs, then sold it at the ecoATM kiosk at the mall in June. The man who allegedly gave Anderson the phone, Nicholas Blaume, is currently in custody for multiple counts of burglary and theft.
The case illustrates the unique challenges presented by cellphone theft in the United States, a crime that by all accounts appears to be on the rise. It also shows how the safeguards put in place by secondhand sellers and phone companies can successfully thwart a thriving illicit market.
A patchwork of data from across the country has been used to illustrate the growing problem of cellphone theft and justify federal laws that would establish national databases of reported stolen phones, and harsher penalties for altering a phone’s serial number to cover up a theft. The Federal Communications Commission reported in 2012 that between 30 and 40 percent of robberies in the country target cellphones. A 2011 survey of consumers by the digital security company Norton found that 1 in 3 Americans reported their cellphone had been stolen.
Spokane police do not keep specific statistics on cellphone thefts, spokeswoman Monique Cotton said.
The 6-year-old California company ecoATM, founded to give cellphone owners a way to recycle their old devices, informs law enforcement every time they establish a kiosk in a new city, according to a company spokesman. Though the process is automated, an employee monitors all transactions remotely and matches digital images taken of sellers by cameras embedded in the kiosk and the photos on their driver’s license, which also must be fed into the machine before a sale can take place.
The process takes about five minutes, as users place their devices on what looks like a grocery cashier’s check stand and a chamber about as big as a breadbox closes. The cellphone is scanned, and the machine gives the user a cash offer for the phone. A signature indicating the user is authorized to sell the phone and a thumbprint finish the transaction, with the cash spitting out of a slot instantly.
ecoATM says the measures, designed to discourage criminal activity, are largely successful. The company has accepted more than 3 million phones and only 1 out of every 1,500 phones received has been reported stolen, according to a company spokesman.
The woman whose phone Anderson allegedly sold reported that the iPhone fell out of her lap as she left her car near Gonzaga University on June 13, according to court records. When she returned to her car after learning she didn’t have her phone, it was gone, she told police.
The woman who owned the cellphone Anderson sold to the company used the app “Find My iPhone” to lock her device and display a message with her husband’s phone number, according to court records. The company contacted her and requested her police report. When she provided it, ecoATM mailed the phone back to her.
The company then provided police with an email including Anderson’s thumbprint, his picture and the signed contract indicating he was authorized to sell the phone. Anderson was already facing charges of identity theft stemming from an incident involving fraudulent charges on a Gonzaga student’s credit card when the alleged stolen property trafficking occurred.
When police interviewed Anderson earlier this week, he said he’d sold two phones for Blaume that day, earning more than $300 from the machine. He said he kept $10 for himself and gave the rest to Blaume, according to court documents.
State law enables prosecution for trafficking stolen property if the offender knew they were selling illicit goods when a transaction took place. Anderson told police he knew Blaume did not own the phone and said it was “probably stolen,” according to court records.
Anderson posted a $1,000 bond Friday and was released. His next court date is scheduled for later this month.
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