Are 'burner' phones like on 'Breaking Bad' real?

On “Breaking Bad,” the miscreants’ schemes often depended on having access to mobile telephones that couldn’t be traced to them. Is this real? The last time I wanted to get a cheap, temporary phone, it was from Radio Shack, and they asked for my name to activate the service.

So, questions:

  1. Are “burner” mobile devices real? Where do you get them? Are they really untraceable?

  2. On "Breaking Bad,"when a phone was no longer useful, usually the character, so just break it in half (at the single of the clamshell) and throw both pieces into the desert. Does physically breaking a phone like this really destroy the information stored on it?

Sure. Buy a prepaid phone with cash. Use it, and pitch it.

When they asked for your name, did they require ID? Because if not, you could just as well have given them my name.

For cheap phones, the info that matters is on the SIM card. You can swap them easily, rather more cheaply but less dramatically than by breaking a phone.

And buy it with cash, otherwise the store can keep/has, at least nominally, of who that SIM card was sold to. Right or not?

Very easy to buy a cheap phone and ‘pay as you go’ sim card in the UK. You don’t need a name or address.

I guess it depends on how competitive the phone market is.

Breaking the phone though does nothing to the information it contains. It just looks cool on camera.

But, of course, the whole point of a burner phone is that none of the information is associated with you, so you don’t care if anyone gets it.

No one asked for my name when I bought pre-paid phones for my daughters. They used them for a couple of months with no name attached to them until I decided it would be easier to add minutes if I could do it over the internet.

The point of breaking the phone is so the phone won’t be scavenged by somebody and re-used. You think the cops look through dumpsters for broken phones so they can check the SIM cards to see if that matches a pattern for some drug dealer? But if the phone were scavenged and used by some junkie who was then arrested for public urination, maybe they’d look at the phone. A broken phone that doesn’t work in a dumpster is never going to be looked at by the cops.

Breaking the phone can achieve two things: (1) it would prevent you from accidentally reusing the phone; and (2) it prevents someone from finding the phone and using it. That IMEI number will never connect to a network again.

If the phone has a removable SIM card, wouldn’t it be cheaper to keep the phone and swap cards for a new one. Early iPhones didn’t have removable cards, don’t know about new ones.

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It’s not just the details on the SIM (primarily the phone number and network access credentials) that are tracked, the IMEI number of the physical device is too.

The IMEI number is also trackable and is part of the phone itself. It can be changed (illegally) but much harder than swapping a SIM card. IMEI is how the cellular carriers can block calls from a phone that has been reported as lost or stolen even if the SIM card has been changed.

Also, don’t use signature lines auto-generated by your phone.

In what country would it be an offence to change a phone’s IMEI number? Granted that this would probably not be done via the normal user interface and would therefore require some “hacking” tools.

ETA I doubt the wisdom of a miscreant drug dealer discussing schemes over a mobile phone anyway! IMEI or not, all usage is tracked and calls can be intercepted and the device itself hacked.

I’d think the police would examine a broken phone stumbled over in the desert rather more than one tossed in the nearest dumpster.

Got me. I guess I’m out of witness protection now.

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I thought it was all on the SIM card. Live and learn. Makes sense when I think about it. The IMEI is the hardware and the SIM is the user.

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Would they though? Sure, it probably means someone that doesn’t want anyone connecting them to their cell phone used it, but it’s also more than likely a dead end and a waste of resources. I suppose they could try lifting prints from it, but even then, they’d have to connect the phone to a crime before they could go anywhere with it.
They’re cheap so they tend to get used by people that commit crimes, but they’re in no way illegal, so I can’t imagine most departments wasting resources looking into them without a good reason.
Of course, if cop just happened to find a smashed burner phone in the desert, a place where you can do just about anything without getting caught, they were probably looking for something in that area, and that in and of itself may connect the phone to the case.

In my head, breaking the phone was their way making sure it was 100% shut down so that it can’t be located. This way if anyone was tracking, be it the police or an acquaintance, the trail would go cold at that location.

Yeah, it’s cool you’ve got a Samsung Galaxy S7, but turn the sig off eh?

That’s what I thought too. Even without a working SIM a mobile phone is still registered on the network when it is switched on so that emergency calls can be made. Taking the battery out would work I guess, but a bit less dramatic though.