More on the Terrorism/Cell Phone Thing

One of the things that has been a bit annoying about these stories of Middle Easterners buying cell phones in large quantities is that there tends to be this reaction.

New “Bulk” TracFone Buyers Caught: Also Mid-Eastern (Coincidence?)

By Debbie Schlussel

Hmmm . . . more mass-buyers of TracFones caught in Tucson, and they, too, are Middle Eastern. Whatta coincidence.

What is wrong with this? Well lets think about this. There have been several news reports of Middle Eastern men buying large quantities of cell phones and a possible terrorist connection. The local Wal-Mart (Target, Dollar Store, etc.) manager points this out to his clerks and asks them to keep an eye out. Low and behold and another Middle Eastern male who may be a pre-paid cell phone re-seller (or possible a terrorist agent) buys a large number of pre-paid cell phones. The clerk sells him the phones, then immediately informs his/her manager and the police are called, the guy is picked up and the news outlets notified.

In short, we have selection bias. The white person buying the phones the day before wasn’t considered a threat because he is…well…white. And this is where the problem lies with profiling that people like Michelle Malkin and Debbie Schlussel seem so enamored with. Suppose we have a terrorist organization like Hezzbollah that decides that there is easy money to be made in re-selling pre-paid cell phones. They note also all these arrests. What would you do? Find a non-Middle Eastern muslim to buy cell phones for you?

This problem is similar to the one when using profiles with airline flights. If you have a profile the terrorists could try to learn what the profile is and how to circumvent it. First the terrorists might send in a a 21 year old male with a beard and carrying a Koran. Then you keep toning it down till you see what gets through the profile without being stopped by security. Then your next team of terrorists is comprised of people who don’t fit the profile.

Now none of this doesn’t mean that investigating the purchase of 100 pre-paid cell phones should be ignored. On the contrary, if this is indeed considered a serious potential link to terrorism then investigate away…but do it with all such purchases. For example, a person who would arouse suspicion might try to recruit non-muslim/non-Middle Easter buyers. So focusing on just people who meet the profile might allow real terrorists or people connected to terrorists (either knowingly or unknowingly) to get away without investigation. Simply using a profile to try and find terrorists isn’t sufficient, or even it is for the short term it wont be for long. You’ll catch all the stupid terrorist agents and then all that will be left are the ones who are smart enough not to do things that arouse suspicion.

Update: Uh-oh, look is this a terrorist using Ebay? And he is selling this for intelligence gathering as well. And these phones sell for $19.97 at Wal-Mart.

My goodness, another one! And this guy has an Ebay store selling lots of phones. And Amazon.com as well!

Now, if I were a terrorist looking for cell phones to use in an IED, would I go to Wal-Mart and buy 80 of them…or order them online virtually anonymously?

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism, , , , , ,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.

Comments

  1. cirby says:

    What’s wrong with it?

    The big problems is that the excuse “we’re going to resell them for twice what they’re worth” doesn’t make any sort of economic sense. These guys can never seem to ID the guys they were planning on selling the phones to…

    Meanwhile, with all of the press this stuff has received, if you were a Middle Eastern man, would you drive all over the country buying something that’s not going to make that much money, and could land you in jail, unless you had some large overriding reason to do so?

  2. legion says:

    Look, I actually don’t have a problem with the way the gov’t has handled this incident. If someone mass-buys cellphones, when cellphones are a popular tool to set off IEDs, then yeah – I want the FBI to perk its ears up and say “waitaminnit”. And the fact that they owned up as quickly as they did that there was actually no terrorist aspect to this thing gives me confidence in them.

    What makes this a news story is the vile, open racism folks like Malkin throw into “reporting” on things like this. Now that the feds have cleared the people involved, you think she (or others who echoed her) will issue any retractions? Feh.

  3. Patrick McGuire says:

    More to the point is where did these guys get the money to buy all these phones? At 20 bucks a pop, it doesn’t take long before we’re talking serious money. Now if the buyers were legit, that means they were travelling around in a vehicle with thousands of dollars of inventory which isn’t very bright. Where does someone of this sort get this kind of money? One of those arrested in the UK on the recent bomb plot was unemployed yet had $500,000 in his bank account. It would be interesting to learn who is bank rolling this operation.

  4. Steve Verdon says:

    Patrick,

    What do you think is in most of those shipping containers you see on the freeways? Thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars of merchandise. That complaint/objection is specious, IMO.

    As for where they got the money to make the purchases, I don’t know, but apparently the FBI was satisfied with the answer.

  5. Quadko says:

    Some good points, but I think you are missing the mark with your profiling argument.

    You argue that we should pay attention to 100% of the “suspiciously large cell phone purchases” rather than just ones by profiled purchasers. I agree.

    Michelle et. al. argue that when searching only a percentage (say, 10%) of people in an airport, don’t waste the serches on nuns and grandmothers. Rank, prioritize, and profile people and search the highest historical threats. Who that means will adapt as terrorist behavior adapts. I agree with that, too.

    They aren’t contradictory. Do 100% when it is cost/time effective, do prioritized percentages when 100% is not cost/time effective.

  6. David Harris says:

    Steve, your argument (statement) sounds a little like the “blacks in jail” debate: There are disproportionate numbers of black men in American jails, so does this mean they commit crimes in disproportionate numbers or that they are disproportionately targeted?

    Can you provide any data to indicate that whites/blacks/hispanics frequently “get away” with mass cell phone purchases? Or is it also not possible that the vast majority (or all) of these purchases are being made by Muslim males? If the second is true, then draw your own conclusions.

    It appears that you are just assuming that “all such purchases” are NOT being investigated, and I’ve seen no evidence of that yet.

  7. cirby says:

    Looking more closely at eBay, all of the “$20 Wal-Mart” Tracfones with actual bids on them seem to be going for under ten bucks plus shipping.

  8. cirby says:

    …and, actually, you have a much bigger paper and electronic trail ordering online (they have to send it to a traceable address, and you could be getting suckered by the Feds) than if you walk into a big store and pay cash.

    Let’s turn that around: if you’re a young entrepreneur looking at making money, how much profit do you think you’re going to make buying phones for $20 plus tax plus transportation charges and selling it for $7 to $10 (as I noted above, some folks may put higher prices on them but they’re not selling worth a damn – they’re not even getting bids).

    If there was a big market for “resold” Tracfones of this sort, there would be hundreds of them for sale on eBay, with many bids, going for a higher price than these guys are claiming.

  9. Steve Verdon says:

    Cirby,

    Looking more closely at eBay, all of the “$20 Wal-Mart” Tracfones with actual bids on them seem to be going for under ten bucks plus shipping.

    Actually, some of them are going for more than $20 and some for less.

    …and, actually, you have a much bigger paper and electronic trail ordering online (they have to send it to a traceable address, and you could be getting suckered by the Feds) than if you walk into a big store and pay cash.

    And if I’m ordering it form overseas? Seriously, you think the Feds are running fake ads on Ebay to catch terrorists? Please.

    If there was a big market for “resold” Tracfones of this sort, there would be hundreds of them for sale on eBay, with many bids, going for a higher price than these guys are claiming.

    Well, my quick search of Ebay says that there are 813 items with the word tracfone. Some are selling minutes, but some are also the phones as well. Typing in cell phone brings up 73,179 items. Not all are actual cell phones, but if even 5% of them are, we are talking thousands of phones being bought and sold.

    Keep working at it though Cirby.

    Steve, your argument (statement) sounds a little like the “blacks in jail” debate: There are disproportionate numbers of black men in American jails, so does this mean they commit crimes in disproportionate numbers or that they are disproportionately targeted?

    No, I’m saying that there is a potential selection bias here that makes this “note the news story” measure bogus. Nice red herring by the way.

    Can you provide any data to indicate that whites/blacks/hispanics frequently “get away” with mass cell phone purchases? Or is it also not possible that the vast majority (or all) of these purchases are being made by Muslim males? If the second is true, then draw your own conclusions.

    That is just it. We have very little data and far from sufficient data to make any kind of inference as to who exactly are buying large quantities of tracfones.

    It appears that you are just assuming that “all such purchases” are NOT being investigated, and I’ve seen no evidence of that yet.

    Again, this is false. I am arguing that all we are hearing about are those instances where we have Middle Eastern males buying large numbers of phones. Are there other large purchases by non-Middle Easterners? We don’t know. All we know is what is reported and that might give a very misleading picture here.

    Michelle et. al. argue that when searching only a percentage (say, 10%) of people in an airport, don’t waste the serches on nuns and grandmothers. Rank, prioritize, and profile people and search the highest historical threats. Who that means will adapt as terrorist behavior adapts. I agree with that, too.

    They aren’t contradictory. Do 100% when it is cost/time effective, do prioritized percentages when 100% is not cost/time effective.

    No, when you do random searches you have to do random searches. What is to stop a white caucausian femal who is also an muslim extremist from putting on a nun’s habit and making up phoney paper work to pass herself off as a nun?

    By prioritizing and ranking you create loopholes in security measures that can be exploited. Maybe not right now, but surely down the road. Random searches will ocassionally mean the wheel chair bound grandmothers and children will be searched. But that is the point, the searches are random so that there is no way to ensure 100% circumventing of sceruity.

  10. cirby says:

    Actually, some of them are going for more than $20 and some for less.

    Go look again, and ignore the “Buy It Now” prices. For the sub-$20 cheapass Tracfones, the only ones really selling are under $10 (or have $10 or more airtime included).

    The ones selling for higher prices are (surprise) nicer phones, with higher retail prices.

    And if I’m ordering it form overseas?

    Then you’re getting the wrong phone, since it’s a GSM 850/1900 US-only phone. The international version is GSM 900/1800.

    Seriously, you think the Feds are running fake ads on Ebay to catch terrorists? Please.

    Why not? They’ve done less-obvious things before. I could sure see them putting up a couple of free eBay ads to see what the suckers will buy.

    Well, my quick search of Ebay says that there are 813 items with the word tracfone.

    …and if you actually look at those items, you’ll find a small handful of them are the cheapest “throwaway” ones (the Motorola C139 that’s the $20 Wal-Mart selection we’re talking about), and of that handful, none of them are selling for the “twice list” price that’s the core of the “reseller” argument. As far as actual facts go, the only ones that are actually selling are going for HALF of list or less. The few that are getting higher prices also come with $10 or more worth of airtime. There’s one going for $13.50 with 380 minutes of airtime…

    A bunch of the “Tracfone” listings are for accessories, by the way. And the guys we’re talking about weren’t buying cases.

    As far as the “there’s a lot of cell phones available,” most of them are going for, well, not much money (or are getting zero bids because they’re asking somewhere near retail), or are “unlocked” phones from shady dealers.

    …and, as I mentioned above, most of the ones that aren’t in the “cheap” range aren’t selling. Which was, once again, the whole point. The “entrepreneurs” are full of it. Those higher-priced “Buy It Now” flags are to snag the occasional idiot, but they aren’t working as a pricing scheme, since there are a few “real” priced phones that are getting 1/3 the price on the open market (and other phones with zero bids).

  11. Steve Verdon says:

    Sorry Cirby, you are both wrong and right, which makes you wrong. The first tracfone I link to is selling for a total of $29 (including shipping which many ebay sellers use to pump up their profits since Ebay doesn’t take a share of shipping costs).

    Then you’re getting the wrong phone, since it’s a GSM 850/1900 US-only phone. The international version is GSM 900/1800.

    No true. GSM 850/1900 is used in other countries such as Canada, Uruguay, Belize, and Honduras.

    Why not? They’ve done less-obvious things before. I could sure see them putting up a couple of free eBay ads to see what the suckers will buy.

    Because this is actually an unlikely way for terrorists to get a cell phone. Cell phones are ubiquitous in Iraq right now, for example. It is one of their biggest growth industries.

    …and if you actually look at those items, you’ll find a small handful of them are the cheapest “throwaway” ones (the Motorola C139 that’s the $20 Wal-Mart selection we’re talking about), and of that handful, none of them are selling for the “twice list” price that’s the core of the “reseller” argument. As far as actual facts go, the only ones that are actually selling are going for HALF of list or less. The few that are getting higher prices also come with $10 or more worth of airtime. There’s one going for $13.50 with 380 minutes of airtime…

    Sorry, that one I linked too is going for quite a bit over the Wal-Mart price. There is a re-sale market, as this indicates. Some of it may be illegal, but it doesn’t come close to being terrorism.

    Looks like the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association disagree with you too.

    But nope, Cirby, Debbie Schlussel, and Michelle Malkin why they know the truth here. Of course, if it were up to the latter two in the list Middle Easterners would be rounded up and put in concentration camps. You might want to check the company your with Cirby.