Burner Phones and the Art of Remaining Anonymous

by April 30, 2013 04/30/13

Sometimes red teams (the bad guys) are hired to test the capabilities of blue teams (the good guys). Some examples of this would be how Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) are pushed into a real-life scenarios to see how they’ll react, Infosec/IT teams are tested under pressure and Intel guys get a dose of deception.

BurnerPhones

One scenario we often play is the “rogue agent” or “underground criminal,” where part of the plan is to disrupt their listening capabilities.

In this situation, we communicate with someone inside the company or organization being tested and provide a way for their intel and QRF guys to test their skills. Of course we don’t make it easy for them.

Burner Phones

One tool we often use in red team operations are burner phones, which by definition are  prepaid cell phones specifically purchased to be used briefly and then replaced.

To make it more interesting, I’ve made a point to collect prepaid phones from different parts of the world. The simpler the phone, the better.  In the picture below, you’ll see a phone from the Netherlands, one from South Africa and another from India.

Burner phones from different countries

Burner phones from different countries

All of these phones were purchased with cash and not only have plenty of minutes loaded onto them, but are GSM phones that can work anywhere in the world. Let them try to figure these out!

The idea is to use a burner once, make contact and disable it by removing the battery before moving on to use the next one. Then all of the sudden, a different member of the team would use the first one to make a completely innocuous call, like ordering pizza. Only this call would have false information: “Excuse me sir, I’d like to order pizza for 8 people, how many do you think I would need?”

This usually confuses the heck out of the first timers and it’s good to see what they try to do with this information.

Burner phones allow the team to remain fully anonymous by switching between different phones. It also helps test the analysts’ attention to detail and teaches them to start separating solid intel from noise.  Like I said, it’s fun to see then scratch their heads over these.

Civilian Applications

While some people might consider burner phones something only criminals use, you now know they’re utilized by red teams too. Law abiding citizens can also benefit from these phones too. Often we don’t want to leave our personal phone numbers when calling companies, due to them selling that information to telemarketers, or we want to set a separate line to be used when purchasing online.

In some other cases it’s a matter of survival. If you have a burner phone from another network, it may be the only one that works during an emergency. Redundancy is a great thing to have when it comes to cellular networks and the point here is to show that they’re a useful tool to have at your disposal.

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: U. Fridman is a senior information security consultant that specializes in detection of information security threats and response to security incidents. His background includes extensive experience in red team activities and management, information warfare, counter cyber-terrorism, industrial espionage, forensics analysis and other security services.


Are you getting more than 14¢ of value per day from ITS Tactical?

Please consider joining our Crew Leader Membership and our growing community of supporters.

At ITS Tactical we’re working hard every day to provide different methods, ideas and knowledge that could one day save your life. Instead of simply asking for your support with donations, we’ve developed a membership to allow our readers to support what we do and allow us to give you back something in return.

For less than 14¢ a day you can help contribute directly to our content, and join our growing community of supporters who have directly influenced what we’ve been able to accomplish and where we’re headed.

Click here to learn about all the benefits and Join!


Jimmy Bauer
Jimmy Bauer

I'm a Bitcoin user and I found only lazersms.com for receiving and sending SMS anonymously, but what about Voip? Are there any websites that give me this option and actually protect my anonimity?

NoRemorse
NoRemorse

"In my opinion, it’s a dangerous thing for literally anyone to have the ability to gain access to one."


If we aren't doing anything illegal, Privacy and Anonymity are OUR RIGHT! It's NONE of the government's business what I do with my phone, or what I say in my correspondence!! They can F____ off!


To answer the question "Should anyone be able to anonymously purchase and use a cell phone?" : ABSOLUTELY AND WITHOUT EXCEPTION!!!


One more thing: even if a person is able to anonymously purchase and activate the phone, it's still possible for the government to bug/wiretap the people it knows you're in contact with to get at you, and they could possibly also use a voice-print of yours to identify you. I speculate they could also possibly find out out what phone you are using by having some supercomputer look for a voice-print that matches yours, without recording the conversation, meaning that they would not be breaking any wiretapping laws.


So if you really wanted to be anonymous, I think you and your contact would need to both purchase and activate a phone anonymously, then share the phone numbers with each other in a non-electronically record-able low-tech. method (ie. word of mouth, paper, etc.), both use voice changers, and only pay for the prepaid cards in cash - and maybe also buy the cards in a store that doesn't record video of the transaction, or have an anonymous 3rd party buy them.



AND A BIG F___ YOU TO ANY PERSON, AGENCY, or ORGANIZATION WHO WANTS TO INTERFERE WITH OUR RIGHTS OR PRIVACY!!!

Sonic
Sonic

@klevr Wal-Mart has pre-paid phones. The last prices I saw for the cheapest ones were $14 each. You activate the phone with a phone card that comes with the phone. When the minutes are up you can use an anonymously purchased phone card to recharge the minutes, or more likely ditch the phone and get another. No ID required whatsoever to purchase. However someone collecting on your phone call could get your IMEI off the phone. Then contact the manufacturer and probably trace that phone to the store you bought it at. Storage is cheap, so assume the store surveillance tapes are going to exist forever. Wear a hat? Take a taxi to the walmart? So they don't get your vehicle and plates? Just some ideas. Good luck!

klevr
klevr

How do you purchase a burner phone without giving your personal information? Even if it's purchased in cash, don't you still have to provide a driver's license for proof of identity so they can register it to you? I've encountered that with the major cell phone companies.

SC
SC

"If you have a burner phone from another network, it may be the only one that works during an emergency"

This is so true. When the 2011 earthquake hit Japan, the phone lines were so overloaded, it was impossible to get a call through. However, for some reason, the pre-paid phones worked fine.

SC
SC

"If you have a burner phone from another network, it may be the only one that works during an emergency" This is so true. When the 2011 earthquake hit Japan, the phone lines were so overloaded, it was impossible to get a call through. However, for some reason, the pre-paid phones worked fine.

Harry Lime
Harry Lime

Excuse my ignorance, but how does one buy and activate a burner phone in the U.S. anonymously? I have bought prepaid cell phones from Best Buy before, and then just swapped out my existing SIM card on my old phone into the new cell phone (mainly because my old phone got wet or otherwise destroyed). But this is obviously not the same thing.

I see how one could purchase the prepaid cell phone anonymously (just go to Best Buy and use cash to buy a disposable cell phone), but how does one put money on it then without having to register on AT&T's website using a name/credit card?

Harry Lime
Harry Lime

Excuse my ignorance, but how does one buy and activate a burner phone in the U.S. anonymously? I have bought prepaid cell phones from Best Buy before, and then just swapped out my existing SIM card on my old phone into the new cell phone (mainly because my old phone got wet or otherwise destroyed). But this is obviously not the same thing. I see how one could purchase the prepaid cell phone anonymously (just go to Best Buy and use cash to buy a disposable cell phone), but how does one put money on it then without having to register on AT&T's website using a name/credit card?

JG
JG

Helps for craigslist/forum transactions.

A buddy of mine was "strong-armed" into returning cash for an obviously used product which he sold on CL. I learned quickly and never provide real name/info and never complete a transaction at my place of residence or employment.

JG
JG

Helps for craigslist/forum transactions. A buddy of mine was "strong-armed" into returning cash for an obviously used product which he sold on CL. I learned quickly and never provide real name/info and never complete a transaction at my place of residence or employment.

Colin
Colin

There are plenty of apps for smartphones that you can buy minutes and disposable phone numbers from all round the world for.

Add in free wi-fi and a vpn service and you functionally have the same thing.

There are of course limitations, but for the typical civilian who only want to make the occasional anonymous call it's a lot easier than buying prepaid phones from India on ebay.

Colin
Colin

There are plenty of apps for smartphones that you can buy minutes and disposable phone numbers from all round the world for. Add in free wi-fi and a vpn service and you functionally have the same thing. There are of course limitations, but for the typical civilian who only want to make the occasional anonymous call it's a lot easier than buying prepaid phones from India on ebay.

Nik Kerry
Nik Kerry

One concern is that some pre-paid companies require you to log-in and register on their website you can use your "burner". It is good to check this out before hand and to also iterate that some have finite amount of minutes and have expiration dates.

OutDoormam
OutDoormam

i have bin doing this for 20 years and still do. i have 4 sim cards swich out every 2 mouths.

i have 1 year to put cash down on a card as long as i put $10.00 its good for another year.

I can a new sim card for 11.00 and no I.D LOL and call to get it running over the cell with John Dow @ kiss my but Canada LOL and they say thank you John.

OutDoormam
OutDoormam

i have bin doing this for 20 years and still do. i have 4 sim cards swich out every 2 mouths. i have 1 year to put cash down on a card as long as i put $10.00 its good for another year. I can a new sim card for 11.00 and no I.D LOL and call to get it running over the cell with John Dow @ kiss my but Canada LOL and they say thank you John.

Kyle Bird
Kyle Bird

There is an also an app for Android called "Burner". It allows a user to get a new number, or multiple new numbers. Also allows you to send and receive text messages from the "burner" number. It requires a network connection and is not secure, but great for uses where you're fairly sure the other party doesn't have the ability or access to sophisticated tracking software.

A good, cash paid for burner is still the best option for true anonymity. The burner app is useful for things like Craigslist, where you don't really want your number being out with the masses.

Kyle Bird
Kyle Bird

There is an also an app for Android called "Burner". It allows a user to get a new number, or multiple new numbers. Also allows you to send and receive text messages from the "burner" number. It requires a network connection and is not secure, but great for uses where you're fairly sure the other party doesn't have the ability or access to sophisticated tracking software. A good, cash paid for burner is still the best option for true anonymity. The burner app is useful for things like Craigslist, where you don't really want your number being out with the masses.

Eric S.
Eric S.

The hoodrats use them with great success. As SOS stated, it makes things interesting at work but most are too dumb to get around the "fish" and other technologies.

SOS
SOS

Just effing Great..... this just ruined Series 2 of THE WIRE on HBO. How is Freeman gonna figure it out now?? As if Marlow wasn't difficult enough.

But seriously Bryan, you know what I do for my full time Job and this causes a serious headache for the good guys.

SOS

SOS
SOS

Just effing Great..... this just ruined Series 2 of THE WIRE on HBO. How is Freeman gonna figure it out now?? As if Marlow wasn't difficult enough. But seriously Bryan, you know what I do for my full time Job and this causes a serious headache for the good guys. SOS

JLS
JLS

Definitely an asset for civillians. If you are going into a situation where you want to leave a phone number but are worried about the way your information may be handled. There are also just those times you want to remain anonymous having to leave a phone number with a hotel or on a reservation. (Everyone sells inforamtion now a days. I keep a burner or two up to date for communications backups. Study which networks each use and keep in mind that minutes often expire on these phones once they are loaded, they may last six months to a year before you have to buy new minutes. Remember to buy the simplest cheapest possible phones, ones like Nokia bar style are very basic but have a great battery life and hold up very well.

LisCrypted
LisCrypted

@Jimmy Bauer Lazersms.com is good, but I don't think you'll ever find any Voip service that accept Bitcoin and at the same time don't ask you for 10'000 personal infos. Unfortanly the voip environment is almost completely anti-privacy :(

Sonic
Sonic

@klevr Wal-Mart has pre-paid phones. The last prices I saw for the cheapest ones were $14 each. You activate the phone with a phone card that comes with the phone. When the minutes are up you can use an anonymously purchased phone card to recharge the minutes, or more likely ditch the phone and get another. No ID required whatsoever to purchase. However someone collecting on your phone call could get your IMEI off the phone. Then contact the manufacturer and probably trace that phone to the store you bought it at. Storage is cheap, so assume the store surveillance tapes are going to exist forever. Wear a hat? Take a taxi to the walmart? So they don't get your vehicle and plates? Just some ideas. Good luck!

Russell
Russell

@Harry Lime  You can buy pre-paid at&t cards at gas stations for cash.  You get a code to enter into the phone to add it to the specific phone.  Dollar General, Freds, Family Dollar, many, many places carry these pre-paid cards.  You can buy them for cash most anywhere, just wear a hat and walk up to the store.

Uri
Uri

True, but 1) those "burner" apps are easier to track than you think and 2) Most of them come loaded with malware, especially on the Android platform.

Russell
Russell

@Nik Kerry  You can call customer service from the new phone before you activate it, with pre-paid card/code in hand (that you paid for with cash at some random dollar store), activate the phone with them.  Tell them anything you want as far as name, address, etc... they dont verify it.  cant be traced to anything but the phone that it refers to.

Uri
Uri

That's when prepaid cards come in handy, especially if you can get one with a fake name.

Ed
Ed

For triggerfish to function they need to connect to your phone what I'm wondering is if your not using your phone when they want to collect do they need to place a call or text or what? or can they connect without your phone ever leaving clues that is was ever connected with?

NoRemorse
NoRemorse

@SOS  Why, Dude? I've watched The Wire too, but knowing how to anonymously purchase a burner phone has never ruined the series or it's plot for me.


PS. The Wire is OLD. You can bet that a lot more sophisticated wiretapping technology is being used today.

The Latest
Squawk Box