A “burner phone” is a cheap, prepaid mobile that one can destroy/discard when it is longer needed. In popular media such as movies and series, burner phones are often used by criminals to evade detection by authorities. Your reason for using a burner phone might be different, it may be due to privacy reasons, as a last resort, or during an emergency.
A “burner SIM” is a related term, this refers to a cheap, prepaid SIM card that you can insert into another phone. You may plan on only using the SIM card for a limited period of time and not linking it to your real identity.
What Is a Burner?
A burner phone is a cheap, prepaid mobile phone that the user doesn’t intend to use long term. These types of phones are traditionally purchased with cash to avoid any paper trail that would tie the phone number to the individual.
The term surged in popularity thanks to the hit 2002 HBO series The Wire, in which “burners” were used to avoid detection by authorities. After a number was suspected of being compromised, the device would be discarded or “burned” to make the trail go cold.
Since the rise of iPhones along with Android devices, burners are commonly referred to as “feature phones” or “dumb phones.” As the smartphones of today didn’t exist in the early 2000s. While the term “burner phone” is still regular, SIM cards can be used in such a fashion.
Instead of purchasing an entirely new device, a burner SIM can be used to switch between numbers. Few smartphones even have the ability to accommodate more than one SIM at a time for this purpose.
Saying that some of the applications of a burner phone rely solely on having a second dedicated device that can be used.
Why Would You Need to Use a Burner?
You might want to use a burner phone/SIM to protect your identity. If you have the ability to procure a handset or a SIM card that is not linked to your real-world identity, you can use that number without fearing the risk of being identified.
There are all sorts of reasons that you might wish to remain anonymous. You might be phoning in an anonymous tip to an employer. You might want to use a secure messaging service like Signal or even Telegram without having to disclose your primary phone number.
Maybe you are trying to avoid giving your main phone number to marketers who are most likely to send you follow-up messages, for example, when you’re viewing a real estate listing. Or, if you are looking for insurance quotes.
Since burner phones are feature phones, these have severely limited abilities. Most of the Burner Phones lack cameras or access to a modern browser, they are limited to phone calls along with text messaging. As these phones are relatively lightweight devices, they have excellent battery life, as well.
Many of these burner phones will last for days on a single charge, they sometimes even last for months if you use the battery sparingly. This factor makes these burner phones ideal for use in an emergency. They can be often found in emergency survival kits as they can be charged, then turned off until there arises a need. A burner phone is a spare phone that has a long battery life and does not require an expensive cell phone plan—what’s not to like?
What’s the Catch? A Burner Doesn’t Guarantee Anonymity
If you happen to buy a burner phone for privacy reasons that extend beyond simply using the number to send anonymous Signal messages or avoiding spam, you have to take into consideration that no cell phone provides you with true anonymity.
It’s all revolves around your “threat model” What are the threats that you are trying to protect your privacy from?
Let’s think about the process of getting a burner phone from a store. Say you drive to a store, buy the burner phone using a credit card, drive home, then turn it on.
In the process of buying a burner: If you took your regular phone with you, your cellular carrier will know that you were at the store when the phone was purchased. License plate cameras on the route might have captured your license plate, along with the recording of your movements. A camera in the store might have recorded you purchasing the phone. Your credit card company will obviously have a record of you purchasing the burner phone. When you turn the phone on at home, the cellular carrier your phone uses will have a good idea of where your home is.
If you carry your burner phone as well as the normal phone at the same time while both are powered on, anyone looking at cellular phone records will get a good idea that the phones are owned by the same user.
Yes, there are a lot of ways you could be traced by an adversary with serious resources. If you are trying to evade government authorities, good luck, though even that wouldn’t be enough.
On the other hand, if all you need is a new phone number that isn’t directly identified and easily linked to your identity by the companies you deal with as well as the people you call, this will work.
If you are not keen on anonymity and just need a secondary cell phone with long battery life for use in emergencies, then it doesn’t matter.
Where to Get a Burner Phone/SIM?
Convenience stores, as well as electronic retailers, will sell prepaid SIM cards as well as burner phones. Walmart, Best Buy, Target, as well as other similar stores will provide a good selection of cheap devices or SIM-only plans that allow you to do nothing but call and text. You could buy prepaid SIM cards from stores like 7-Eleven as well as drugstores like Rite Aid.
You should expect to shell out between $10 to $50 for a cheap burner, depending on the features you need. Plans do start at around $10, however, it ultimately depends on your intended use. Many burners are used purely for texting as well as calling, any additional features on top of that (touchscreens, cameras, etc.) are surplus to requirement, thus making it a waste of battery life.
The Nokia 110 is a 2G feature phone that grants up to 14 hours of talk on a single charge. The BLU Z5 is relatively priced but is equipped with a camera. The Nokia 1.3 is one of the most “advanced” cheap handsets, though for that you need to shell out around $100, it runs Android 10.
If you are looking for anonymity, how far you wish to go in anonymizing your purchase depends on you. You can ask others to buy it for you, or you can others to purchase you a gift card, which could then be used to buy a burner phone. Or, the plain old way, you could use cash in person. If you are serious about your anonymity, you should avoid using your credit/debit card, so purchasing from an online retailer is not the best idea.
If you are only purchasing a burner to throw into a survival kit or if you intend to store it in the car for emergencies, you can surf the web for the best deals without having to worry about privacy implications. Amazon, eBay, or any local service provider you prefer are great places to start.
What About Google Voice along with Other Services?
If you are simply looking for a second number that can be used for just calling and texting from a computer. Or, if you just want to use a service like Signal or Telegram, consider VoIP services. Google Voice, Skype, along with other internet telephony providers can provide you a number that can be used for just basic texting and calling.
Google Voice only works in the U.S.; however, it is free and is easy to sign up for. You have the ability to register a new Google Account to use with the new number, then take precautions, for example, hiding your IP address using a VPN. Other providers exist as well, however, they will likely charge you for a number (this might even require linking your card).
Burn After Reading
If you are using a burner for privacy reasons, make sure you are taking appropriate steps to distance your identity from the purchase. On the contrary, if your interest in a burner is purely for emergency or backup use, make sure that you charge the phone before you store it. (Consider an AA battery charger).
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