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Phone Theft Crackdown Targets Secondhand Dealers

By  Alex Nitkin and Heather Cherone | August 31, 2017 3:51pm 

 An ordinance approved Thursday would require phone dealers to prove they're not peddling stolen goods.
An ordinance approved Thursday would require phone dealers to prove they're not peddling stolen goods.
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CITY HALL — City leaders voted to tighten regulations on secondhand cellphone dealers on Thursday in an effort to combat muggings by choking out the market for stolen phones.

Under the ordinance approved by the City Council's public safety committee, every cellphone peddler in the city would need to show a receipt verifying that the phone had been checked against a stolen phone database to make sure it doesn't match.

Cellphone providers keep a list of permanent electronic serial numbers for every phone reported stolen, officials said. The database is accessible to police departments and other local officials.

The ordinance requires anyone selling more than five secondhand phones to register for a special license, and anyone found in violation could have their license suspended or revoked after a single violation.

Police reported almost 14,500 lost or stolen phones around the city in 2016, officials said.

Many of those phones were taken through strong-arm robberies, and others — like many of the 200 phones reported lost during Lollapalooza last year — were "pickpocketed," according to Anthony Riccio, the Chicago Police Department's chief of patrol.

"A large number of those are stolen by armed offenders, and result in injuries to people, just because there's a value to these phones," Riccio said. "So by taking away the value of these phones completely, we're hoping to drive those robberies down and keep citizens safer."

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), who co-authored the ordinance, said she was pushed to action by countless "concerned citizens" desperate to stop street robberies.

"People are losing their life every day, getting knocked in the head, all because of a cellphone," Mitts said. "This is a big business that we're looking to put a stop to, so hopefully this legislation can help save a life by causing someone to be more concerned about taking someone's phone just for a small profit."

The measure was first introduced last month by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Ed Burke (14th), marking at least their second crackdown on stolen phones in the past three years.

In 2014, Burke authored a measure that required all smartphones sold in Chicago have a kill switch, which would enable users to deactivate the phones if lost or stolen. The move was spurred by the 2011 death of a 68-year-old woman who was pushed down the stairs at the Fullerton Avenue CTA stop during a smartphone theft. The thief received a 32-year prison sentence.

The issue hits close to home for Emanuel, whose then 17-year-old son, Zach Emanuel, was on his cellphone with his college counselor when he was approached from behind, assaulted and robbed of his phone in December 2014, his father said.

But for "the grace of God," Emanuel said his family was spared, and he said the law needed to be changed to protect other families.

The full City Council is expected to approve the measure during its next meeting on Wednesday.