Terrorists Spurring Sale of Pre-Paid Cell Phones

ABC News reports that terrorists may be behind a recent surge in the sale of disposable cell phones.

Federal agents have launched an investigation into a surge in the purchase of large quantities of disposable cell phones by individuals from the Middle East and Pakistan, ABC News has learned. The phones — which do not require purchasers to sign a contract or have a credit card — have many legitimate uses, and are popular with people who have bad credit or for use as emergency phones tucked away in glove compartments or tackle boxes. But since they can be difficult or impossible to track, law enforcement officials say the phones are widely used by criminal gangs and terrorists. “There’s very little audit trail assigned to this phone. One can walk in, purchase it in cash, you don’t have to put down a credit card, buy any amount of minutes to it, and you don’t, frankly, know who bought this,” said Jack Cloonan, a former FBI official who is now an ABC News consultant.

Law enforcement officials say the phones were used to detonate the bombs terrorists used in the Madrid train attacks in March 2004. “The application of prepaid phones for nefarious reasons, is really widespread. For example, the terrorists in Madrid used prepaid phones to detonate the bombs in the subway trains that killed more than 200 people,” said Roger Entner, a communications consultant.

The FBI is closely monitoring the potentially dangerous development, which came to light following recent large-quantity purchases in California and Texas, officials confirmed. In one New Year’s Eve transaction at a Target store in Hemet, Calif., 150 disposable tracfones were purchased. Suspicious store employees notified police, who called in the FBI, law enforcement sources said. In an earlier incident, at a Wal-mart store in Midland, Texas, on December 18, six individuals attempted to buy about 60 of the phones until store clerks became suspicious and notified the police. A Wal-mart spokesperson confirmed the incident.

The Midland, Texas, police report dated December 18 and obtained by ABC News states: “Information obtained by MPD [Midland Police Department] dispatch personnel indicated that approximately six individuals of Middle-Eastern origin were attempting to purchase an unusually large quantity of tracfones (disposable cell phones with prepaid minutes attached).” At least one of the suspects was identified as being from Iraq and another from Pakistan, officials said. “Upon the arrival of officers, suspects were observed moving away from the registers — appearing to evade detection while ridding themselves of the merchandise.”

[…]

Law enforcement sources say it is possible some large purchases that have been identified as being sent to the Middle East could have been sent for resale in a sellers’ market for handsets, or simply given to friends and relatives. Officials are also investigating these possibilities.

Managing the complex balancing of these two issues — significant and legitimate uses and their potential for misuse has been an ongoing dilemma for law enforcement. For now, both intelligence officers and bomb technicians have been monitoring reports of large-quantity purchases.

Some such purchases may have innocent explanations, but even law enforcement officials themselves say disposable phones are sometimes their own phones of choice when operating in hostile environments. The CIA recently used them in a kidnapping in Milan, Italy. Italian authorities were able to track the telephones. But they mostly tracked them to a dead end — the false identities in which they were purchased.

Possible purchasers of disposable cellular phones could also include political extremists, terrorist supporters, sympathizers or others simply shaken by the recent revelations of the spy agency’s widespread monitoring of calls, including calls to and from the United States to foreign countries.

The utility of pre-paid, disposable phones for terrorists and others seeking to avoid being monitored is obvious. And the purchase of mass quantities of them in a single sale, especially to people of Middle Eastern origin, would raise a major red flag.

On the other hand, the increased aggregate popularity of these phones is likely mostly innocent. Despite relatively low advertised prices, maintaining a cell phone on a monthly plan is ridiculously expensive and cumbersome. A decent plan costs $50 a month and requires a commitment of a year or two to one’s provider, mostly because even basic plans are bundled with dozens of features average customers never use.

It is important that we not overreact to the likelihood that some people are using these phones for nefarious reasons. The same is true, after all, for anonymous e-mail accounts and other means of communications. Banning disposable phones, or adding significant hurdles to their purchase, in order to perhaps inconvenience potential criminal users would be excessive but hardly unprecedented. After all, we have made it more trouble than it is worth to purchase Sudafed in a silly attempt to keep decongestants away from meth producers.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. bryan says:

    The same is true, after all, for anonymous e-mail accounts and other means of communications. Banning disposable phones, or adding significant hurdles to their purchase, in order to perhaps inconvenience potential criminal users would be excessive but hardly unprecedented.

    I’m not aware of anyone detonating a bomb by means of an anonymous e-mail account, however.

    Perhaps limiting the number that could be purchased at any one time, or introducing more technological means of control.

  2. jimbo says:

    I don’t think the worry is about using prepaid phones as detonators. After all, you could obtain a cell phone for use as a detonator simply by stealing someone else’s cell phone. In fact, that would be very convenient since it might send law enforcement off on the wrong track trying to pin the bomb on the poor sap whose cell phone was stolen.

    The authorities don’t like prepaid phones because they cannot tie them to anyone and so they make a perfect means of hidden communication. I just hope that the stupid, bumbling US politicians don’t outlaw prepaid phones (no doubt such an act might engender generous contributions from the phone companies). After being overcharged for years by one of the big phone companies, we went with prepaid phones a couple of years ago, and have probably saved a thousand dollars. Ironically, the prepaid phone service is better because the prepaid phone uses the nearest available tower no matter whom it belongs to.

  3. Frank says:

    they use them in the rest of the world…the use of terrorism as an excuse for a ban is bullshit

  4. davod says:

    So often we transfer our technological thinking to groups who may not think the same as us.

    Were terrorists using this technology in the past. I would think so.

    The issue should be what triggered the unusual, if it is unusual, increase in bulk purchases. Is it linked to the NYT’s article.

  5. Richard Gardner says:

    Given the locations, I would think the more likely uses are for illegal aliens, or for drug running (which is alluded to in the article). But instead, the bogeyman of terrorism is thrown over it, with the FBI involved.