Police warn about illicit “apple picking” in Northwest Philly

Smartphones swiped from their rightful owners in Northwest Philadelphia are making their way to Cheltenham kiosks.

On the whole, cell-phone thefts are nothing new. However, police both locally and nationally have been lamenting recent rises in cellular-related crime, which often involves the snatching of a phone out of the user’s hands.

It’s known as “apple picking” — Apple iPhones are a prevalent target — and can be either a simple theft or possibly be upgraded to robbery if any amount of physical force is used.

In the past, street transactions and quasi-legal exchanges — pawn shops, Craigslist — were the eventual home of stolen devices, but a recent development in cell phone “recycling” is commanding the attention of police officers from the 14th Police District, headquartered in Germantown.

“They’re not snatching purses anymore,” said Lt. Anthony Buchanico at a recent community meeting in West Oak Lane. “You can walk five minutes from where we’re sitting and get $150 cash.”

Easy profits

Called an “ecoATM,” the green kiosks typically found in shopping malls are automated, self-service mechanisms that quickly evaluate and purchase used consumer electronics directly from consumers for cash, according to the company’s website.

With a transaction that apparently takes only a few minutes to complete, a potential ecoATM customer places the mobile device within the test station. The ecoATM then examines the device and searches for the highest price in the worldwide market. If the potential customer agrees to sell the device, cash is received on the spot.

While police have always warned residents about being aware of their surroundings, at recent Police Service Area community meetings held in various locations in the 14th District, officers have been reminding the public to be extra wary about using their cell phones in public.

Just across the city limits

Across the city boundary from the 14th District is the Cheltenham Square Mall, which is home to the closest ecoATMs relative to Northwest Philadelphia.

Once inside, it’s near the FootLocker, and it’s a concern for local law enforcement, who are suggesting that the thieves may be able to overcome the device’s built-in security features.

It’s a claim that Ryan Kuder, director of marketing and operations for ecoATM, refutes.

According to ecoATM’s website — which has its own “law enforcement” tab — there are often misperceptions about the system. The site details various security features designed to deter the selling of stolen property and to help track both the items and individuals involved if it does occur.

Every ecoATM transaction is remotely monitored by company staff through cameras and imaging devices, which verifies government issued identification against the image of the seller, fingerprints and device information.

Kuder said that the actual validation is approved by a living, breathing human being on the other side of the camera. He emphasized that the only identification accepted is a valid government-issued ID – student ID’s won’t cut it.

Moreover, ecoATM say they will respond quickly and diligently to any request from law enforcement “to research and/or return any reported stolen items that may have been collected by ecoATM.”

As a result, ecoATM claims that currently less than one out of every 4,000 devices collected by the machine are later reported as being lost or stolen.

EcoATM “works hard to ensure that our kiosks are the worst possible option for a criminal to sell stolen property and the best place for the victim’s property to end up if it was stolen because we can track and return it,” the company writes.

Kuder relayed that ecoATM works with police to return phones identified as stolen at their own cost, so there is a financial disincentive to accepting mobile devices obtained through illicit means.

Building upon the web-based statement that EcoATM “works hard to ensure that our kiosks are the worst possible option for a criminal to sell stolen property,” Kuder was unambiguous in describing what the system’s users agree to.

“We tell you that that we’re collecting the info,” he said, “and we tell you that we’re telling the police that you sold it to us.”

Company working with police

While keeping an eye on the ecoATM, and its users, police say that the company has been cooperative, aiding in the identification of a suspect in a recent theft.

After a recent apple-picking incident in the neighboring 35th District, police went to the Cheltenham Mall and contacted ecoATM personnel, who were able to electronically open the machine from a satellite location.

Pictures of the suspect and their thumbprint were printed, and an arrest warrant was subsequently issued, according to officers familiar with the incident.

Told of the police operation, Kuder responded that he was glad to help police, and in the event of future thefts, would continue their cooperation.

Currently, Philadelphia Police are working with Cheltenham Township detectives to combat this trend, and are continuing to monitor traditional fencing operations like pawn shops and “cash for gold” operators.

To discourage such thefts, police are telling residents to avoid public use of cell phones whenever possible. Smartphone users are also encouraged to download tracking applications on their phones, should they be stolen.

“I’m not saying don’t use your phone,” said Buchanico. “Just be wary of where you’re at.”

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