ecoATM: Quick Cash for Old Cell Phones or Criminal Honeypot?
Nearly everyone has old cell phones laying around or stuffed in "junk" drawers, but not everyone knows they can sell old cell phones for cash. Many online and retail outlets buy old cell phones (you can compare cell phone buyback offers on Flipsy, for example), but ecoATM has a different approach: self-service cell phone buyback and recycling kiosks.
What seems like a good idea hasn't gained favor with everyone, as some law enforcement agencies and local governments claim ecoATM's quick cash kiosks contribute to the rapidly growing stolen cell phone market. The following details what ecoATM is, how it works, and its accolades and criticisms so you can make an informed decision about using ecoATM kiosks.
|Before you sell, don’t miss our ecoATM checklist|
What is ecoATM and how does it work?
Founded in 2008 by Mark Bowles and acquired by Gazelle in 2015, ecoATM places self-service kiosks in high-traffic areas such as shopping malls, groceries and Walmart retail stores. The kiosks pay cash for used cell phones; then, ecoATM either resells the phones for a profit or recycles them according to eco-friendly standards.
For consumers, ecoATM makes instant cash offers for cell phones, tablets and MP3 players. Cash offers can vary anywhere between $1 and $500 depending on model and condition; for older models that have no value, consumers can elect to have ecoATM recycle them for free.
The process works like this:
● The kiosk walks users through several screen prompts to ascertain identity, phone model, and condition
● It then outputs a QR code label users must affix to their phones, which they then connect to a power jack
● The phone is inserted into the kiosk and the machine works to verify its condition in order to assign a value
● Users are then prompted to scan their driver's licenses and thumbprints, which are recorded in ecoATM's database
● A camera takes a photograph, which is remotely relayed to a team of live online employees who manually verify that the person using the machine matches the photo on the driver's license scan
● Finally, the ecoATM kiosk presents a cash offer for the phone, and users can elect to accept the payout or decline and receive their phones back
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Criticisms of ecoATM
Proponents of ecoATM say it offers a hassle-free way to get instant cash for old, unused devices. They point to the fact that some buyback vendors only offer store credit, while others can take as long as 45 days to deliver payouts. Moreover, they say the cash incentive ensures more people will recycle old devices responsibly, contributing to an eco-friendly environment.
Others, however, view ecoATM as a facilitator to more nefarious activities: namely, cell phone theft. They argue that ecoATM provides an outlet for criminals to quickly turn stolen cell phones into cash. Baltimore has banned the use of ecoATMs in its city, and the state of Maryland is considering a statewide ban. Vermont, Houston and Washington, D.C., among other entities, are considering similar legislation. Baltimore Delegate Luke Clippinger calls ecoATMs "honeypots" for criminals.
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The fear is that ecoATMs provide motivation for criminals to steal cell phones, sometimes violently. Pedestrians with valuable phones are targets for criminals, who might also target ecoATM users in relatively deserted locations. Authorities seek to stem any potential for theft and violence that arises from the presence of ecoATM kiosks. ecoATM reports that just 1 in every 1,500 phones submitted to its kiosks are stolen; however, Burlington, Vermont police say that figure is closer to 1 in 10.
In 2019, several recent news stories detailed how people in Illinois, Nevada and New Mexico have found their stolen phones in ecoATMs, though some police officials say ecoATM helps law enforcement catch criminals.
Despite seemingly-robust security measures, authorities are concerned that ecoATM kiosks are fallible machines and open the door for criminals to cash in; moreover, some criminals have already enlisted third-party "middlemen" to use ecoATM kiosks, leaving the actual thief difficult to track down. Even when thieves are caught, the fact that most people don't record phone serial numbers makes it difficult to return stolen devices to their rightful owners.
While law enforcement officials want more security, others contend that ecoATM's stringent approval process is prohibitive. They don't want to have to surrender personal information that will be recorded in a database, especially if they'll only make a few dollars from their old cell phones.
ecoATM security standards
ecoATM counters by pointing out that its kiosks follow security protocols that comply with Secondhand Dealer Laws – regulations pawn shops must abide by. They can only be used with a valid driver's license and by those who are at least 18 years of age; plus, the kiosks record photographs and thumbprint scans of every user.
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Kiosk photos are verified against driver's license photos by ecoATM staff members, and ecoATM promises to share records of any questionable transaction with local law enforcement. Those measures should keep most criminals at bay; and when they do not, ecoATM keeps vital data on record that can help law enforcement officers track down criminals. Even if a middleman is used, that person can be questioned to determine the identity of a cell phone thief.
In addition, ecoATM's website features a dedicated law enforcement page that details the steps it takes to work with law enforcement agencies to minimize related criminal activity. The company also employs a law enforcement board comprised of retired police chiefs, sheriffs, marshals, and other law enforcement personnel. Finally, FBI-LEEDA has recognized ecoATM's efforts to stem cell phone theft and work with law enforcement agencies to prosecute criminals.
ecoATM maintains that the company is doing everything possible to stop its kiosks from being used for criminal activities, and is eager to point out that its robust security measures makes its kiosks far less attractive to criminals than other outlets such as Craigslist and Game Stop.
ecoATM user experience
Judging by blog and forum posts, users have reported mixed results with ecoATM. "Mom on Caffeine" blogger "Martha" gave ecoATM "two thumbs up," reporting that she netted $163 for a one-year-old iPhone 4 in good condition and $53 for a two-year-old broken iPhone 4 with a cracked screen – for a total of $216. The process took approximately 30 minutes, though ecoATM says most transactions take just 4 to 5 minutes.
Crackberry forum poster Thachoc1 reported ecoATM offered him $87 for four old Blackberries, and seemed satisfied with the kiosk's valuation. Other respondents, however, reported that he could have made more from his devices if he had taken the time to compare cell phone buyback offers.
Melville Dewey of "Dewey B. Strategic" reported a decidedly different ecoATM experience, one he was evidently dissatisfied with. After 30 minutes engaging with the kiosk interface, he was offered $1 for his old cell phone (he did not identify the model or condition).
Overall, it seems one's level of satisfaction with ecoATM is wholly dependent on the offer the company makes: those who receive higher offers are happy to receive the cash, while those who receive low offers feel as though they've wasted their time.
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Is ecoATM a good deal?
Ultimately, it's up to the user to determine whether ecoATM is a good deal. Those who need cash fast will find ecoATM to be a good way to get it, provided they have a valuable phone model in acceptable condition. Those who want to maximize their profit, however, might find better deals in the online cell phone buyback marketplace, provided they're willing to wait for their payout. In either case, it's a good idea to check real-time used cell phone values before selling in order to make an informed decision that nets the best deal for a given situation.
Next: 3 Ways to Replace a Cracked Samsung Phone Screen (and What It Costs)