An August AAA report named Philly the top city for smartphone theft. Police have counted more than 5,800 cell thefts so far this year, with significant yearly jumps on public transit and university campuses.
San Diego-based ecoATM, a leading provider of cell-for-cash machines, has placed two in Philly since 2012 - Cheltenham Mall and Franklin Mills - and maintains more than a dozen in surrounding suburbs.
"Theft is bad for our business," said Max Santiago, director of law-enforcement relations for the company and a 30-year police veteran.
The machines photograph users and require fingerprints and photo IDs. Transactions are recorded and referenced with theft databases. If police track a stolen cell to an ecoATM, the company ships it back to the owner.
Of the more than 35,000 devices processed by area machines in the last year, 43 were deemed possibly stolen, Santiago said.
Maureen Rush, public safety vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, said retrieving phones doesn't go far enough.
She points to the traumas associated with the record 90 campus-area phone thefts reported this year.
"This technology is really great in that it helps us capture [thieves], but how many people need to get robbed in between?" she asked.
SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel suggested delaying the machines' instant cash so brazen criminals aren't paid before police catch them. He noted that a significant chunk of SEPTA offenders return to rob after multiple arrests.
A spokesman for ecoATM said they don't have plans to expand here, but are open to the possibility. Philly's current pair of kiosks is still open for business.
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CORRECTION: The source of the report that contained the number of cellphone thefts was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.