City Council committee moves — again — to dry up market for stolen cell phones

The ordinance boosts fines and penalties for secondhand dealers, pawnbrokers and bogus phone repair shops that buy and sell stolen cell phones. The maximum penalty would rise to $10,000 for each illegal sale, up from $2,000.

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Fines could go up for businesses caught selling stolen cellular phones.

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The Chicago City Council has tried repeatedly over the years to dry up the market for stolen cell phones unloaded by street gangs to bankroll their operations.

Still, the strong-arm robberies continue unabated — on the street, on the CTA and during the avalanche of carjackings.

This past week, the License Committee tried again.

At the behest of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and South Side Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), the committee on Wednesday unanimously approved an ordinance that dramatically increases fines and penalties for secondhand dealers, pawnbrokers and bogus phone repair shops that buy and sell stolen cell phones.

Instead of a fine of up to $2,000 for each violation, the maximum penalty would rise to $10,000 for each illegal sale. Two or more violations within two years would cost the business its license for four years. No one could open on the premises for one year. Unlicensed businesses would face the same fines and penalties.

Hairston said the ordinance was triggered by a carjacking in her ward that turned deadly.

“They got $100 for the cell phone. But a young man lost his life,” Hairston said.

“We ... have had a long history of trying to get these people to do right. This is a way to increase the fines hoping that they will become more accountable.”

In fact, Hairston argued, the one-year revocation for a specific address was not long enough to prevent “another family member or friend from reopening on the same site and continuing the same practices.”

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried desperately to dry up the black market for stolen cellphones after his then-teenage son had his cell phone stolen down the street from their Ravenswood home.

The ordinance Emanuel championed prohibited the purchase of any cellphone from a minor and barred secondhand stores, kiosks and service providers from purchasing or activating any cellphone until the serial number was cross-checked against a database of stolen phones.

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

The ordinance also tightened the regulatory noose around pawnshops and secondhanddealers that traffic in stolen phones. Retailers with five or more used cellphones were required to get a secondhand dealers license.

Business owners were further required to slap stickers with the inventory number on used cellphones, keep an inventory of acceptedphones, cross-check the database of stolen and lost cellphones, and issue a receipt to the buyer.

Hairston complained Wednesday the ordinance is “not being enforced like it should be.”

Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Ken Meyer countered that annual inspections show 94% compliance.

“When an individual brings a cell phone to sell the second-hand dealer, that dealer is responsible for keeping that cell phone on premise for 30 days. They can’t sell it on the 25th day. They can’t sell it on the 22nd day,” Meyer said.

“That cell phone [also] has to be registered to a log of stolen merchandise, which is updated daily. Our investigators inspect that log to make sure it’s there. And ownership has to look at Police Department records every day on the computer system to make sure that cell phone is not reported” stolen.

Hairston was unimpressed.

“They don’t. In the incident I am referring to, it was sold within hours of the murder,” she said.

Meyer replied: “This is why we are cracking down. … This is why we want to increase the fines and penalties.”

Detective George Hilbring described himself as the Chicago Police Department’s “pawnshop and second-hand dealer liaison.”

Hilbring said he is notified “every time there’s a hit” on the serial number of a stolen cell phone. That’s happened twice in the last four days, he said.

But when Hilbring acknowledged under questioning he is a “one-man show,” Hairston said: “You might need some help.”

In the homicide in Hairston’s ward, Hilbring said, the offender immediately took the tablet to a second-hand dealer, and “our detectives were able to recover it” at the store.

That store, Hillbring added, “did not initially report the transaction, and they have been since cited.”

Hairston replied, “So they are since cited and a young man is dead. Does that seem fair?”

When Hilbring said, “That’s why we are here to increase the fines,” Hairston replied, “We’ve got to make it stick. The only way we’re gonna stop it is to stop them.”

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