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

Well, also if they were looking for someone lost out there when they came across it, they might think it dropped by the missing person[s].

I also imagine the FBI now has fantastic technical resources when they look at kidnappings, and might be able to get facts from a broken machine most could not.

You could quite possibly want someone else to use the burner phone after you use it. Extra variable for the prosecution to rule out, in case you get caught. Many of them rely on ‘stingray’ metadata as it is. Someone else uses it, it complicates the hell out of their case. Breaking it afterward helps, but if you break it and take a couple pieces of it with you, and throw them out the car window at random spots, particulary the parts with serial numbers. Its relatively easy to put a broken bread board back together after it has been snapped (22 gauge wire, solder and super glue) If you get rid of the serial number or the part of it with it, it makes it harder for them to trace it to its point of sale and thereby use video footage to get an idea of who the purchaser was. That still leaves fingerprints, so unless you do all of the above, and wear a mask and gloves when you buy it with cash, they can and will find you. And out in the desert, as in the show, its going to be much easier to narrow down people in such a small population (compared with big cities). Best thing is not to commit crimes/become a meth dealer lol.

But all of the above rules out the fun factor of the show. Breaking it is enough for the show creators to get by and “wow” the viewer with cleverness without in depth detail. It does a good enough job for the viewer. But yes, Burner phones are real.

EDIT/FORGOT: They also use the last known cell tower ping location as part of stingray data and can pretty much triangulate/‘foxhunt’ and find you reasonably then, at least enough to make you a person of great interest, especially when cameras are everywhere.

Finding a phone you believe belongs to someone that went missing, wasn’t planning to go missing (ie got lost or kidnapped) and wasn’t doing anything illegal is altogether different than finding a phone a phone that someone bought and later disposed of with the sole purpose of using without being tracked or traced.

You wouldn’t know the difference until you checked.

It seems Tapatalk keeps turning it on and off in various forums. PITA.

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Extremely unlikely. Unless maybe they had a specific reason to. Between my hobby of Geocaching and volunteering for community cleanups, I’ve found around 30 - 40 discarded phones (urban, wilderness and roadside) in the last couple of years including 3 iPhones


Since the advent of the new SDMB skin I’ve ditched Tapatalk on my S7 and switched to simply using the Chrome browser directly on the site:

It works real slick, much better than the old skin did. Meanwhile, IMO in recent months Tapatalk has gone from being a useful unobtrusive utility to being a PITA spam delivery system. I voted it off my island. You might want to see how this works for you.

I do occasionally use Chrome, particularly when there’s a poll. Tapatalk doesn’t show them. At least the older versions did not.

Let’s see if the signature shows GaryM as it should.


I remember years ago here in Oz an article describing a “colourful racing figure*” who had a wallet filled with SIM cards and who would be constantly swapping them out of his phone to make various calls. Useless in terms of evading the scrutiny of law enforcement. As noted above, the phone’s IMEI number makes the calls trivial to link home. So the idea of a burner phone takes hold. Only slightly less useless. The cell knows your position to a quite high degree of accuracy, and this information is recorded. Correlating calls with various other people of interest with the location the calls are made from is going to be nearly as useful. Physically smashing up the phone makes zero difference. The useful information is in the cell records. Perhaps if you were stupid enough to have all your nefarious colleagues’ details in the phone’s contact list it would make things worse, but that is about it. Every call, to whom, and where the call was made from, is all in the system records awaiting an appropriate warrant. Lining together your network of fellow villains from these records remains quite feasible, and that is the main goal.

The better use of multiple SIMs is not to evade the law, but to evade your fellow criminals. Having a different SIM and thus phone number to call each each “business” associate from makes it easier for you to keep each associate at arm’s length, and avoid having your set of associates becoming known amongst one another so easily.

Here in Oz it has been impossible to purchase a SIM without id for quite some time. More to prevent stalkers and harassing calls than to address organised crime. The bar on id isn’t all that high, so effectively anonymous SIMs can be had, but the bar is probably high enough that random bozos can’t get one to make harassing anonymous calls from.

  • illegal bookmaker

It does.

Now if we could just get the skin to stop making show sig the default. I swear I edit 80% of my posts just to switch that off.

:confused: “Stingray”?

If the police were tracking the phone, they could locate it because it was dumped at the location where it was broken. They would just have to go to its last recorded location and they’d find the broken phone there. They could then extract the SIM and read its data. Plus they’d be able to check for fingerprints.

The smart plan would be to break the phone and then carry it to a different location to throw it out. Then the trail would be dead and the phone couldn’t be found.

But we’re talking about TV and movies. Breaking the phone and dropping it looks cooler.

I read about the Mayor of Toronto being investigated for drug abuse (the police report was released a few years ago). The dealer used a flip phone, not a smartphone. The police could track which cell phone tower he was using, so they could roughly track his location (and who he was calling) but weren’t intercepting the phone calls, nor could they track his location to within 3 feet like you could with a GPS-enabled smartphone.

Breaking the circuit board in a cellphone means it takes a decent amount of resources to get it all back together again and working well enough to be powered up and read. If that doesn’t work but the police are lucky, maybe they can just pull the memory chip off the board and insert it in a different computer circuit to read the data. none of these exercises are trivial; in expert manpower and cost, there would have to be serious motivation. If the chips are broken, or the leads pulled off the silicon inside the chip carrier , then even more resources. I assume they could get the IMEI from the circuit board or the phone’s stickers and no need to reassemble as a functioning phone, unless that number told them this was a highly relevant phone. It might be done for a nationally prominent case, but otherwise, why bother? Especially for a flip phone, you could get call information from the phone bill records. Some flip phones did photos, but not too high quality - I assume the investigation would have to be sure there were highly relevant photos to go through the trouble. The SIM card would have contacts, etc. - most TV shows don’t show the perp removing the SIM card first, which could be flushed quite easily.

After all, what’s the goal? “you can’t prove I used this phone”. Wipe the fingerprints, crush it and dispose of the remains in a way that can’t associate the phone with you. The police not knowing if the IMEI is associated with you is a good first step. The police not knowing if the SIM belonged to you is also a good step. If they know or suspect, not having the physical evidence to prove it in court is the next step. After all, given any numbers, they can look at the phone company data to find activity… plus as mentioned, when the phone or SIM is bought, there’s usually a trace. (So is it illegal in Australia, for example, to privately resell SIMs or phones?)

I doubt that. In Britain, selling pre-loved phones on eBay accounts for a comfortable share of GDP.

Interesting to note, regarding burner phones, that DEA/HIDTA have been using a little magic called Hemisphere for quite a while now. Burner phones aren’t anonymous - there’s an algorithm for tracking that stuff. It doesn’t matter if you trash both the SIM and the phone - if you’re a high-priority target, you can still be tracked down. And the records include location of caller and call recipient, with the records going back to ~1987.

I trust everyone knows how to google “Operation Hemisphere.” The ACLU and EFF are not pleased.

Obviously if the cops have a broken cell phone that they have reason to believe is related to a high priority investigation there are all sorts of things they can find out. And if t’s the FBI or the NSA then all bets are off.

The problem is that a random broken phone in a trash can doesn’t trigger an intensive forensic examination in most cases. Yeah, if the feds have Gus under surveillance and see him break a phone and toss it in the trash, they can grab that phone and go nuts. But if the feds have Gus under surveillance he’s screwed anyway.

The point of the burner phone is that even if the cops get ahold of it and investigate it because it’s at a crime scene, there’s nothing tying the phone to a person. And the point of tossing your burner phone in the trash every so often is so that the phone never ends up at a crime scene.

The point of a burner phone is mostly proactive. No one can listen in on your calls or track your movements in real time.

Note that in the show, once the cops led by Hank started seriously looking into Gus, they found a lot of information really quickly. It was pretty obvious that his empire was in serious trouble even without arrests or informants, and his anxiety over his drug empire collapsing was what led him to the fatal confrontation with Hector.