IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Cellphone buyback ATMs tempt — but also thwart — thieves

Cellphone buyback ATMs that dispense cash for phones and other electronics sound like a petty thief's dream. And indeed, a recent article in the Washington Post called attention to the machines serving as a speedy, low-risk fence for stolen property. But EcoATM, which operates a network of 340 machines in 20 states, is trying to make things hard, if not impossible, for criminals.

"We totally recognize that people steal cellphones," the company's director of marketing, Ryan Kuder, told NBC News. "We've got a policy to return any phone we find that has been reported lost or stolen at no charge ... so we've got a serious disincentive to accept stolen phones."

To that end, EcoATMs actually perform quite a battery of authentications on the seller and phone itself:

  • Several high-resolution pictures are taken of the person selling the phone.
  • They must present a valid ID showing them to be over 18.
  • This ID is checked against internal and police blacklists.
  • A thumbprint is taken.
  • The serial number of the phone is recorded and cross checked with available stolen phone databases.
  • Finally, the purchase must be manually approved by an EcoATM representative, who can access all this data.

Yet this still might not be enough — a thief might use an accomplice with a clean record to sell the devices, or go to a kiosk in another city, where the phone won't appear on local stolen-phone databases. But Kuder points out that these are the same risk that other pawn shops and trade-in-friendly store face.

Like those establishments, EcoATM works with police. But while there is some collaboration, it's necessarily limited owing to the lack of a single nationwide or worldwide lost and stolen phone registry. Carriers, likewise, have no central listing of phone serial numbers that are still under contract, reported lost, and so on. EcoATM shares this info "fully and transparently" with police, but that's not as easy or universal to do as it could be.

In the meantime, the company's buyback machines, though susceptible to clever criminals, at least provide a nice paper trail — unlike, for example, Craigslist, the popular classifieds site that is largely anonymous and frequently used as a cash-only clearing-house for stolen items.

With hundreds of thousands of devices bought back by the kiosks, and then recycled or resold, the automated ecosystem is new and growing. Still, it may never be 100 percent crime-proof.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is