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Personal Finance

Turning old cell phones into new cash
For charitable groups, thar's gold in them thar handsets.
June 24, 2004: 12:08 PM EDT
By Les Christie, CNN/Money contributing writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Way back when, groups like Scout troops and the Salvation Army raised money by picking up old newspapers, bottles, and cans, and reselling those commodities in bulk for pennies.

In the new millennium, there's an easier way to fill charitable coffers: collecting old cell phones and reselling them to companies that refurbish and ship them overseas.

Coping with donations at Cell Phones for Soldiers  
Coping with donations at Cell Phones for Soldiers

One charity, Cell Phones for Soldiers, was set up in April 2004 by 13-year-old Brittany Bergquist and her 12-year-old brother, Robert. The Massachusetts siblings had read about a soldier who had run up a $7,000 phone bill, and decided to try to help pay the phone bills of soldiers deployed in Iraq and other foreign lands.

According to father Bob Bergquist, the kids have already amassed a network of 1,500 drop-off donation centers for cell phones in fire houses, schools, and other locations all around the country, and raised more than $15,000 recycling old cells.

The volume of phones has grown so fast, says Bergquist, it's "a little scary."

Now, the American Legion is lining up donation centers in all 50 states, perhaps 15,000 locations in all, to accept cell-phone donations for the Cell Phones for Soldiers

The amazing, colossal discarded cell-phones

According to the trade association for the wireless industry, CTIA, about 165 million Americans subscribe to cell phone services.

By 2005, according to the environmental research organization Inform, 130 million cell phones a year will be retired in the United States. There will soon be a backlog of 500 million un-discarded phones.

Kim Kuo, spokeswoman for CTIA, says the average American changes handsets once every 18 months. Nearly every time a wireless company makes a new deal with a customer, a free phone comes along with the offer.

"Most people don't want to throw away the old phones," Kuo says, "and 70 percent of them just tuck them away in a drawer."

Cell selling prices
Here's what two big Web-based buyers of used cell phones pay for various old handsets.
Make and modelCellForCashOldCellPhone
Ericcson T226$12$15
Motorola V70$25$25
Nokia 3100$40$40
LG LX5350$10$13
Samsung SCH-i600$58$65 and

For charities and for individuals, it's a snap to sell the old phones over the Internet.

James Mosieur, CEO of RMS Communications Group, which runs CellForCash, says his company lists 278 different cell-phone models it is willing to buy, most of which are less than three years old.

To turn a phone into cash, go to the Web site, click on a cell manufacturer and model and a price appears instantly. Complete the process by filling out a name and address form and the company sends a box with a prepaid shipping label. Pack up the phone and drop it in the mail.

After the company receives a phone, it tests it to make sure it works, then cuts a check.

David Bresnahan, a volunteer for the Boy Scouts of America in West Jordan, Utah, says his local boy scout troop expects to raise more than $6,000 by collecting and reselling used phones this summer.

The cell-phone drive began more as a teaching exercise, he explains, an environmental lesson in how old electronics are disposed of in landfills.

"A local TV station picked up the story, and we started getting hundreds of calls from people wanting to donate their phones," says Bresnahan. "We had no idea the volume of what could be found."

The Scouts take any phones people give them and ship it all to With their profits, 14 Scouts have planned a one-week, whitewater trek in Alaska.

Making it simple

Mosieur says CellForCash buys 10,000 to 15,000 phones a month and pays an average of about $15 apiece for them.

A quick perusal of the site shows it will pay from $4, for a Nokia 1250, to $173 for a Samsung SGH-P705, a recent model and comes with a camera and TV tuner.

Mosieur says that only 10 percent of his handsets come from fundraisers, but he expects "a lot more business from them in the future."

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That's because many cell phone providers and other organizations have begun to encourage donations. Sprint and Verizon, for example, have set up donation programs in their retail stores, according to Kuo.

Robert Newton, of says half of the 20,000 phones that his company buys each month come from charities. "We have non-profit organizations all over the country that send us phones," he says.

The company is donating a portion of all cell phones received in June to Cell Phones for Soldiers.

Some charities actually use some of the collected phones themselves. Call To Protect, a program administered by the Wireless Foundation, CTIA's charitable arm, places refurbished cells with victims of domestic violence so they can call for help in emergencies.

But what happens to all the other old phones? Both CellForCash and OldCellPhone ship most of them to Latin America. "There's tremendous demand there for old American cells," says Mosieur.  Top of page

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