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What is a burner phone and when should you use it?

A hand with an old feature phone.
Tacio Philip Sansonovski / Shutterstock.com

A “burner phone”

; is a cheap, prepaid cell phone that you can destroy or throw away when you no longer need it. In popular media, criminals often use burner phones to evade detection by authorities. You can use a burner phone for privacy reasons, as a last resort, or during an emergency.

A “burner SIM card” is a related term and refers to a cheap, prepaid SIM card that you can insert into another phone. You may plan to use the SIM card for a limited time only and not associate it with your real identity.

What is a burner?

A burner phone is a cheap, prepaid cell phone that the owner usually does not want to use for long periods of time. These phones are traditionally bought with cash to avoid any kind of paper trail that would link the phone number to a person.

The term was popularized on the hit 2002 HBO series The wire, where “burners” were used to avoid detection by authorities. As soon as there was any suspicion that a track had been compromised, the device was discarded or “burned” so that the track would go cold.

Since the emergence of iPhones and Android devices, burners are more commonly referred to as “feature phones” or “dumb phones,” as today’s smartphones did not exist in the early 2000s. While the term “burner phone” is still common, SIM cards can also be used in such a way.

Rather than purchasing a brand new device, a burner SIM card can be used in a smartphone to switch songs for a variety of reasons. Some smartphones can even accommodate more than one SIM card at the same time.

With that in mind, some burner phone uses rely solely on having a second dedicated device for you to use.

Why should you use a burner?

You can use a burner phone or a SIM card to protect your identity. If you manage to get your hands on a handset or SIM card that is not linked to your real identity, you can use the number without the risk of being identified.

There are many reasons why someone may want to remain anonymous. Maybe you call an anonymous tip to an employer. You may want to use a secure messaging service such as Signal or Telegram without disclosing your primary phone number.

Perhaps you are trying to avoid giving your main phone number to marketers who are likely to send you follow-up messages, such as when viewing a real estate ad or looking for insurance quotes.

Since burner phones are feature phones, they are severely limited in their capabilities. Most don’t have cameras or access to a modern browser, and are instead limited to phone calls and text messages. Since they are relatively light devices, they also have excellent battery life.

Many such devices can last for days on a single charge, and sometimes months if you use the battery sparingly. This makes burner phones ideal for use in an emergency. They are often found in emergency survival kits, as they can be charged and turned off until needed. A burner phone is a spare phone with a long battery life that does not require an expensive mobile phone subscription – what’s not to like?

RELATED: Signal Vs Telegram: Which Is The Best Chat App?

A burner does not guarantee anonymity

If you are buying a burner phone for privacy reasons that go beyond just using the number to send anonymous signal messages or to avoid spam, keep in mind that no cell phone offers you true anonymity.

It’s all about your “threat model” – what threats are you trying to protect your privacy against?

Just think of the process of getting a burner phone from the store. Let’s say you drive to a store, buy the burner phone with a credit card, drive home and turn it on.

Here: If you brought your normal phone, your mobile operator will know you were in the store when the phone was purchased. License plate cameras on the route may have captured your license plate and recorded your movements. A camera in the store may have recorded that you bought the phone. Your credit card company has proof that you bought the phone. When you turn on the phone at home, the cellular provider using your phone has a pretty good idea of ​​where your home address is.

And if you have your burner phone and regular phone with you at the same time and both are turned on, anyone looking at cell phone data can get a pretty good idea that those phones are owned by the same person.

Yes, those are a lot of ways you can be tracked down by an adversary by serious means. If you’re really trying to dodge government agencies – well, good luck. You need it.

On the other hand, if you just want a new phone number that can’t be directly and easily linked to your identity by the companies you do business with and the people you call, that’s fine.

And if you’re not looking for anonymity and just want a secondary cell phone with long battery life for emergency use, this doesn’t really matter.

RELATED: Can anyone really track my phone’s precise location?

Where you can get burner phone or sim card

Convenience stores and electronics stores will sell prepaid SIM cards and burner phones. Walmart, Best Buy, Target, and other similar stores have a good selection of inexpensive devices or SIM-only plans that let you call and text, and not much else. You can often buy prepaid SIM cards from nearby stores like 7-Eleven and drug stores like Rite Aid.

You should expect to pay between $ 10 and $ 50 for an inexpensive burner, depending on the features you want. Plans start at around $ 10, but ultimately it depends on your intended use. Most burners are used purely for texting and calling, and any additional features above that (touchscreens, cameras, etc.) can be redundant and a waste of battery life.

Nokia 110

The Nokia 110 is a simple phone with 2G functions that offers up to 14 hours of talk time on a single charge. The BLU Z5 is priced comparably and even has a camera. The Nokia 1.3 is one of the most ‘advanced’ low-cost handsets, although it costs around $ 100 and runs Android 10.

If you’re really looking for anonymity, you decide how far you want to go with anonymizing your purchase. You can ask someone else to buy it for you, or ask them to buy you a gift card, which you can then use to buy the phone. You can also use personal cash. For the sake of anonymity, you probably want to avoid using your credit or debit card, so buying from an online store probably isn’t the best idea.

If you only buy a burner to throw in a survival kit or to keep in the car for emergencies, you can search the web for the best deals without worrying about the privacy implications. Amazon, eBay, or your favorite local service provider are great places to start.

What about Google Voice and other services?

If you’re just looking for a second number that you can use to call and text from a computer, or to use with a service like Signal or Telegram, consider VoIP services. Google Voice, Skype, and other Internet telephony providers can provide you with a number to use for basic texting and calling.

Google Voice only works in the US, but it’s free and easy to sign up. You can register a new Google account to use with your new number and take precautions such as hiding your IP address with a VPN. There are other providers, but they will likely charge you for a number (and you may need to link your card for that).

Google Voice

RELATED: What is a VPN and Why Do I Need One?

Burn after reading

If you are using a burner for privacy reasons, make sure you take proper measures to dissociate your identity from your purchase. If your interest in a burner is purely for emergency or backup use, make sure to charge the phone before putting it away (and consider an AA battery charger).

Wondering how to charge your burner while away from an electrical outlet? Learn how to charge your phone in the middle of nowhere. If you’re wondering how the police have dealt with this phenomenon in the past, consider looking back The wire

RELATED: Charge your smartphone while camping

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