Burner Phone

Partly I was inspired by the Raspberry Pi Phone and thought I would prepare for a ‘roll your own phone’. As it needs a GSM type SIM card, I’d need a phone with a GSM SIM card I could transplant to it.

Partly it was just having seen them in movies and TV shows for a decade or so and wondering just how hard is it, really, to get a “burner phone” and how hard would it be to ‘track me’ with it.

Partly it was just preparing for a couple of things that require that you give a phone number and that number becomes a matter of “public record”. So I’d rather not use my regular number for that. The “rate plan” for a phone you almost never use is not very expensive for one of these. More on that below.

I Bought My Burner

I was out buying something else (groceries) and decided to “check the prices”. I ended up with a phone and ‘minutes card’…

At home, I did the set up. All in all, very fast, easy, and cheap.

The phone and minutes were bought at Walmart. The phone is a fairly competent Alcatel A205G with the ‘old school’ screen about 3 x 5 CM and with real number buttons. It cost $9.84 with charger and car adapter. ( I could have gone cheaper at about $4.84 for some flip thing, or gone upscale for $30 for a nice LG quasi-smart phone with no buttons but a lot of screen). The “minutes” get more complicated.

When you bring your own phone, a minute is a minute. When you buy one of theirs, they increase the minutes. So, for example, my phone “doubles the minutes”. The $30 one ‘triples the minutes’, so if you actually will use the thing, that would matter. Minutes come in blocks of one month, 90 days, a year… At the end of that time, POOF! no more phone or minutes. I bought a “60 minute” air time plan for $29.72. Yes, that works out to about $1/2 per minute. These things are NOT cheap to use… But my phone is 2x, so for me, it’s 25 ¢ minute. And with the $30 phone, it would be 16 ¢ per minute. (Or one could buy a larger minute plan and get even lower).

Compared with “unlimited time” for about $30 / month on some cheap providers, it’s not at all cheap to use. But at about $6 to $10 a month for a ‘almost never used’ phone, it’s a cheap way to get a number.

And a phone.

Setup

Setup was remarkably easy. It is a ‘TracFone’, so I went to their website. They ‘encourage’ you to set up an account with contact information, but you ignore that. Enter the ESN (serial number) of your phone SIM card, pick a zip code area, and your “Minutes PIN” from that card; and you get whatever phone number it gives you. Then power cycle the phone, and call someone. (It says if that doesn’t work, wait a minute and repeat the power cycle… for me it took two tries).

Yup. That simple.

As I paid cash for the phone and the card, and didn’t tell them who I was at sign in, IF I’d used a scrubbed RaTails Pi or via a disposible MAC dongle at a WiFi Hotspot, there would be zero connection to me.

The Exposures

Now the first thing I did to test it was to call my ‘real’ cell phone. That left a fingerprint that one knew the other and connected the phone to me. The second thing I did was give it to a web-site broker when I asked them to price ems.org for me (in a comment on WUWT…) and that, too, will have connected it to my home IP, my MAC address on one of the computers, my name, and my email address.

The point? Inside an hour my “burner” was closely identified with “me” for any intelligence agency that can find the coffee pot.

Then I left it on in my pocket as I drove to “the mechanic” to drop of a car for fixing. That put the two phones as being together in one vehicle traveling from home to the mechanic and back. Pretty much GPS sealing the deal on “we’ve met”.

So, IF you ever intend to use one of these as a Real Burner Phone, you need to NOT do those things. Activate NOT from your home or tablet computer. Do NOT have two phones powered up at the same time and together. Do NOT call one from the other. Do NOT give your name and / or email to someone with the phone number. Etc. In essence, you need to build an entire ‘alternative personality’. Different email. Different physical address ( P.O.Box or such ) and they don’t know each other so don’t travel together or call each other… Not nearly as easy as it looks in the TV shows ;-)

For my purposes, it’s working fine, and that one of me knows the other of me isn’t an issue either. The purpose is to have a number I can give to non-agency type folks, and they can use ‘for a while’ but where I’m happy to ‘nuke it’ later if the SPAM becomes an issue. Get a SIM card with service available should I ever actually try making that Pi Phone. And maybe have a second phone I can use with a different geography to the phone number. (That is, if looking for a job in Florida, it works better to have a Florida area code and not a California one. While folks are getting better at it, I still got questions with the California area code. Easier to put the Florida number on the resume for Florida jobs…) While a diligent party could fairly quickly connect the number to me, and me to an address and location; it has some isolation of the “real phone number” from the 1001 information vacuums sucking up everything that they can get (Google… gMail… NSA… etc.)

In Conclusion

With a little care, it is nearly trivial to get a real Burner Phone with absolutely minimal connection to “you”. It is harder to keep it that way, but with more care, it can be done. Cost to get and have one is fairly low, if you actually USE it for communications, the price is not at all cheap. (Then again, I did exactly zero price shopping on this experiment… Phase Two can include price shopping costs of minutes on other plans and with other phones. On the “someday” list.)

At $30.68 all in phone and 3 months / 120 minutes; it is a VERY reasonable alternative for someone on a vacation and needing a quick phone, or for someone from overseas where they might have incompatible phones and / or horrific roaming charges.

IIRC the ‘stuff’ on the promo board, it only works on the Tracfone network, so don’t expect this to work in fringe coverage area. I don’t have their map in front of me (and on the Chromebox this map didn’t show anything, so I’m not all that certain just where coverage ends ;-) But it works here! 8-}

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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8 Responses to Burner Phone

  1. serioso says:

    I prefer H2O wireless for a “rarely used” number. It’s ten bucks a month with data, so you can use an Android or an iPhone. The trouble with TracFone is you still have to pay the ten bucks if you want to keep the number but you get no data.
    On the other hand, I don’t think you could get an anonymous number from H2O wireless…

  2. Larry Ledwick says:

    I’ve used tracphones for close to 10 years now, they use major vendors cell networks. My current phone connects via AT&T, the prior one used Verizon, so coverage has never been an issue for me. I think they also default to any network if the cannot connect to the primary network vendor. I have never had total blackout of coverage and that includes calling from the roadside in I80 in the middle of no where of Wyoming when my car broke down.

    I almost never make a voice phone call, occasionally send text messages and never browse the web on the phone. For someone who has very limited usage, it is significantly cheaper than unlimited plans when you count all the costs. In the smaller card units (ie 30 or 60 minute cards) the minutes time out after 90 days whether you use them or not. At $20 for 30 minutes of time and 1/3 minute per text message I would have to get a new card at about 70 – 80 days in the beginning. The new phone gives you triple minutes but they partition them up 1/3 to text (at one minute per text message) and 1/3 to voice and 1/3 to web. Because of that I have been doing more voice calls, but still never use the web function (have a tablet on a separate account for that so I can actually read the screen). To avoid issues with timeout of minutes, I buy a spare 30 minute card but only activate it at the last minute before current minutes run out. The clock on minutes does not start until you activate the cards and to my knowledge they have no limit on “shelf life” without being activated.

    You can pickup new minutes cards at almost any store you go to that sells cell phones or cell accessories plus all most all major gas outlets on the interstates. The phones are so cheap it is no big deal if you drop it or lose it, or it just dies of old age.

    My only essential function for the phone is text messages related to work. If those were eliminated I would use about 10 minutes a month for text messages.

    My account for the tablet costs me significantly more per month than this phone. If someone wants a cheap phone so they have access to 911 or occasional text messages and you are not addicted to round the clock web access on a smart phone, the pay by the minute phones are a really good deal.

  3. Bob Koss says:

    I’ve been using a $30 W377g Tracfone for about 5-6 years. Until last March I was buying the 60 minute 3 month cards and getting double minutes. I don’t lose the unused minutes unless I fail to activate another 3 months card before the old one expires. Had over 1300 minutes accumulated on my phone. In March Tracfone offered me a special one year extension on activation with no added minutes for $50. I took them up on it and with more than 3 months left I still have over 900 minutes remaining. Think it was some sort of selective offer as my son never got that offer for the same phone.

    Only once have I had a poor signal problem where all the major networks were known to have poor coverage. As Larry says Tracfone has an agreement with all the major networks to switch to their networks when necessary. Have let people use my phone when their specific network didn’t have coverage, but another network was available to me. Back when I first signed up Tracfone had a coverage map on their site which showed their coverage to be more extensive than any of the individual majors.

    The only serious problem I have had is when the cell towers near my home went down for a couple days after a storm. The phone then kept searching for a network until the battery drained. Less than 1/2 a day for that. Might consider shutting the phone off if you happen to be in a situation like that, and just check occasionally to see if signal has been restored.

    Still maintains a charge for about 6-7 days for the little I use it.

    I’m very happy with the investment as I only use it for phone calls. Nothing else.

  4. E.M.Smith says:

    FWIW,

    The map on the box the phone comes in is almost 100% coverage coast to coast, with minor drop outs shown in places like out back Nevada and central north New Mexico, but basically total coverage from about Kansas to the East coast.

    I’m “good with that” ;-)

  5. Ian W says:

    Do these PAYG phones have WiFi access and does that eat minutes too? WiFi tends to be free for normally purchased phones.

  6. Petrossa says:

    be glad you can still buy such a phone. In Europe you can only buy payasyougo cards after giving your passport/identity card which will be copied . Impossible to buy a simcard except for criminals.

  7. Greg Hall says:

    I have used the AT&T Cingular “GO Phone” for 5 yrs now. $100 gets you network access and 1000 voice minutes for 1 yr. All in-country calls are 10 cents a minute.

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