Aldermen move to dry up resale market for stolen cellphones

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Last year, 14,493 cellphones were reported lost or stolen in Chicago. Many were muscled away from distracted pedestrians and CTA riders by armed offenders lured by the $600 they stand to make on the resale market.

On Thursday, the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety moved to dry up the black market for stolen phones that street gangs use to bankroll their operations.

“We have armed offenders come up to people to try to take the cellphone from ’em. They result in injuries to people — simply because there’s a value to these phones. They can turn around and get $500, $600 for a nice cellphone,” said Anthony Riccio, the Chicago Police Department’s chief of organized crime.
“Our goal with this really is to drive that down — to get rid of it completely by taking the value away.”

Riccio noted a recent pattern in the Shakespeare District. Four times, a pair of offenders punched or hit pedestrians with objects and ran off with their cellphones. An additional 200 phones were stolen at Lollapalooza.

“We can cut it significantly. I can’t put a number on it. But I know this will make a significant difference. The fact is, no one is gonna steal something that’s worthless,” he said.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose West Side ward is plagued by gang violence, said she can only hope Riccio is right.

“People are losing their life every day. Peole are getting knocked in the head riding trains all because of a cellphone. And they make $500 or $700 off a phone that they take from someone. This is a big business. This is something we need to put a stop to,” Mitts said. “Hopefully, this legislation can help to save a life.”

The ordinance approved Thursday was championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose son’s cellphone was stolen in December 2014 just a few doors down from his Ravenswood home.

It would prohibit the purchase of any cellphone from a minor and bar secondhand stores, kiosks and service providers from purchasing or activating any cellphone until the serial number is cross-checked with a database of stolen phones.

Those same stores would be required to make their records available for inspection and notify police if someone tries to sell a stolen phone.

The ordinance also tightens the regulatory noose around pawnshops and secondhand dealers that traffic in stolen phones, even though they’re already licensed by the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

Those changes would require retailers with five or more used cellphones to get a secondhand dealers license.

Retailers would be further required to slap stickers with the inventory number on used cellphones, keep an inventory of accepted phones, cross-check the database of stolen and lost cellphones and issue a receipt to the buyer.

Fines would range from $1,000 to $2,000 for every cellphone purchased or offered for sale in violation of those provisions.

Chris Kennedy, commander of gang investigations for the Police Department, said the ordinance “really does empower the beat officer.”

“That officer has the ability to walk in and take a look. If these phones aren’t tagged. If there’s not a log maintained. If they haven’t followed a myriad of things that this now mandates then the fine is significant,” Kennedy told aldermen prior to Thursday’s vote. “With those types of crimes, the challenge is proof. If we walk in and see there’s stolen phones there and they fail to work within this law, it really does move the needle to show that they had knowledge.”

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) said the city’s crackdown will be only as good as the database.

“If we’re gonna tell people this is gonna help reduce crime,” Osterman said, “we’ve got to make sure we can back that up.”

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