This weekend I decided to explore how easy it was to get an untraceable "burner phone". There is a lot of talk about burner phones, often used for illegal activities but for our purposes useful for disaster preparedness. It was surprisingly easy to get, though there were some interesting discoveries about the use and upkeep of one that you need to be aware of.
I originally assumed, with no previous knowledge, that a burner phone would cost $50-100, similar to a regular contract phone with a big-name brand. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the phones were CHEAP, costing $5-50 for the conventional (non-smartphone) variety. At Walmart, I looked at the specs on all the boxes, and found that the $10 Tracfone Samsung S150G has the longest talk time and battery life [of the models they had in stock].
These phones operate on pre-paid calling-time cards, so I bought the $10 phone and a $20 phone card good for "60 minutes" of time. This phone, as well as every other Tracfone model at my Walmart, comes with "free double-minutes for life", meaning that 60-minute time-card will actually get me 120 minutes of talk time. In order to see just how anonymous I could be, I paid cash for the phone, leaving only security camera footage to identify me as the buyer. The checkout process was painless, with the clerk processing a quick barcode scan to enable the phone (not the same thing as activating, this just proves the phone was bought, so that it wouldn't work if you stole it off the shelf).
I got the phone home and unboxed it. It came with the phone, one battery, a manual, a hands-free earpiece, a wall charger, and a car charger. The phone charges with a standard micro USB cable, which means that my $10 purchase got me both a wall and car charger, each of which would probably cost $10-20 alone. A cheap way to get chargers for your other phones!
Activation of the phone was straight forward. I had hoped that you could activate the phone from the phone itself, so that you could keep it as an unactivated emergency phone, but that wasn't the case. You need either another phone, or an internet-connected computer to activate the phone. I chose to use the internet, and if you wanted to stay anonymous you could use an internet cafe or free wifi access at a restaurant or something. Activation online was a simple process, taking about 5 minutes to step through the wizard, where you enter the phone's serial number, and your airtime card's number. Initially, it asks you to make an account, connected to your email address, but there is a button at the bottom to "skip this step", to keep it all anonymous.
One interesting thing that happened during activation, is that after adding my 60 minute talk-time card, which doubles to 120 minutes because of the phones "free double minutes for life" feature, I also got an extra 20 minutes to bring the total to 140. Similarly, while the time card was supposed to last 90 days, an extra 60 days was added somehow, to bring the total to 150 days. I don't know where the extra time and duration came from, and I couldn't find any mention of them in any of the paper or online documentation. It could be that the phone can actually be activated with a pre-included 30 minutes and 30 days, or it may be a bonus for adding your first card. Since I added my time during activation, I have no way to tell [without buying a new phone to try it].
After activating, a quick reboot of the phone conveniently displays my remaining talk time and activation duration on the screen. According to the paper manual included with the phone, I was supposed to be able to access a menu item to tell me my phone's number. Unfortunately, after a day of repeated accesses, the phone still doesn't know its own number and display it to me. I placed a call to another phone, and noted the number that came up on the caller ID.
It's worth explaining how the activation period and air time minutes work, because it wasn't easy to find at any point before I had activated the phone. When you buy an airtime card, it includes both a block of pre-paid minutes and an extension to the activation duration, such as 60 talk-time minutes for 90 days. The 60 minutes are added to the total remaining minutes on the phone, and the 90 days extends how long the phone remains active, keeps its phone number, by that much. So for disaster preparedness, you would need to buy cards periodically, to keep stacking on the activation period, and all the minutes roll over. While you get the best prices for cards with large numbers of minutes, the better strategy would be to buy many small cards, in order to push the activation period out as far as possible. The terms of service state that if the phone isn't used to talk in one year, even if the activation period is extended by adding cards, the carrier can terminate the activation and reclaim the phone's number - I don't know how ardently they adhere to this policy.
Sending or receiving text messages costs 0.30 minutes each, which could only be discovered from within the phone account's management panel online. Getting voicemail just uses minutes, in whole minute increments, as you listen to them, just like talking on the phone. Multimedia (MMS) messages cost 1 minute each, for phones that are capable. My phone is capable of browsing the web, and using data services seems to charge at some small rate, possibly just how long it takes to transmit the data.
In the interest of this being a disaster preparedness phone, I looked around online to try to find extra or extended batteries for it. These non-smartphones are a lot better on batteries than modern smartphones are, but it still wouldn't hurt to have some added insurance. Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything for a Samsung S150G, after some brief searches on some popular online sites, like Amazon. I don't know if other models of phone would fare better, or if the cause is that this phone is just old or was made specially for inexpensive pre-paid use like this. It seems like a waste, but I guess the alternative would be to just buy a couple extra $10 phones, to get the batteries... that's probably what the batteries would have cost on Amazon anyways.
In conclusion, these "burner phones" are inexpensive, and easy to buy and use anonymously. They could come in handy for a variety of emergency and disaster preparedness situations, even just if your main phone ran out of batteries. There aren't any accessories available for the phone I got, but it's great that it came with both a car and wall charger, and if you want an extra battery you could just buy another phone. The use of the phone is inexpensive, and adding talk time is simple. Overall, I recommend getting one.