What is a burner phone? We often hear the term in our line of work. A burner is a single-use phone, unattached to your identity, which can theoretically be used to communicate anonymously in situations where communications could/may be monitored.
You should follow several underlying protocols when utilising a burner to ensure you remain anonymous – such as how you purchase it, communicating only burner to burner, when and where you turn it on, and what you disclose while speaking on it. Once a burner has been used once, they are generally replaced with another.
Confusing a burner phone with a disposable/pre-paid mobile (DPM) is easy. If purchased with cash, pre-paid mobiles can be used similarly in that they provide a degree of anonymity as they are not bound to a contract. While the correct definition is debatable, the main difference between burners and DPMs is that true burners are utilised only once, and users follow strict protocols. DPMs are generally kept for some time and not used in such a rigorous way.
Burners/DPMs are often utilised with a ‘burner sim.’ As with mobiles, these can be purchased anonymously, switched between phones, or discarded.
The fact burner phones are untraceable and allow anonymity often means they are utilised for illegal activity, and many countries do not allow their use. While we at Valkyrie advocate for the protection they can provide for privacy reasons, using burner phones can hinder investigations. For example, it can make investigating criminal activity – such as malicious calls, stalking, extortion, and blackmail – very difficult when a criminal uses a burner phone, requiring us to employ other investigative techniques to identify perpetrators.
However, there are legitimate reasons why people may use burner phones – or, more likely, a DPM – such as listing a phone number in an advert, using dating sites, or temporarily publishing a phone number for short-term use.
With mobile comms evolving as quickly as the threat landscape, people quite rightly have privacy concerns when using digital devices. A DPM can assist in protecting your identity; it can also assist in protecting your identity from cyber threats.
We often advise clients of the pros/cons of using these devices and when to consider it. There is a prominent market for prepaid mobiles, most entirely innocent; however, as with most things in the tech world, criminals will look to abuse them. Ultimately, there is a fine line of separation between using a DPM to protect your privacy and a criminal using a burner to avoid getting caught. If through privacy concerns, you do decide to utilise a burner/DPM phone. Remember, they are not a ‘silver bullet’ solution, and they aren’t without their security/privacy limitations, they need to be used effectively to maximise their usefulness.