Can Burner Phone Numbers Be Tracked? The Limitations Revealed

Your mobile phone and number give away so much of your information. Since your smartphone is always with you, a disposable or burner phone or temporary burner phone number can reduce how easily you can be tracked. But, can a burner phone number be traced?

Generally, a burner phone can be traced. All mobile phones and burner apps go through a cellular carrier or virtual number operator. Your identity can be tracked via call logs, data usage, location, and text messages. Law enforcement can compel companies to provide this information.

The average customer might want a burner phone to add a simple layer of privacy. For example, disposable numbers are helpful when using online dating services or selling personal property. Being completely untraceable is not easily accomplished and here’s why…

How Can a Burner Phone Number Be Traced

Whether you’re adding a level of personal privacy or tracking down someone using a burner phone number, there are several ways that tracing is possible.

Blond driver using phone hanging out of the van window without worrying her burner phone number can be traced

Through Your Carelessness

The average consumer can access virtual burner phone numbers through a smartphone burner app, like Hushed, and physical cell phones purchased at a store.

With a disposable virtual phone number, subscribers signing up with non-pseudonymous information can reveal their identity.

A virtual burner phone or a physical burner phone used at home and work exposes your identity. Even making a voice call can lend a clear enough sample for voice-matching software to recognize you. It’s also possible to establish your identity by tracing other phones that move between cellular towers simultaneously.

For example, do you commute with a friend or carry two personal phones with you?

If you have your burner phone and regular phone simultaneously and they are powered on, anybody looking at cell tower records can get an idea that the same person owns the phone.

Cellular tower close up against blue sky recording and tracing burner phone number use

Through the Service Provider

Since the cellular service provider is involved in every phone call, text, and data link, unsecured call logs and account information reveal subscriber identities. Whether through a data breach or the provider’s marketing/advertising decisions, you give up rights to the data collected on you when you activate any service.

Adding a burner phone number service adds another party to the communication chain. Sometimes this adds a hurdle to tracing, while other times, it’s a risk to your identification.

You can mitigate some of these risks by changing providers and randomizing your usage habits regularly. But for the extreme use case, you may want to avoid using modern mobile communication devices and services entirely.

It’s absolutely possible to use a smartphone without signing up with a service provider. Check out this list of messengers and alternative ways to connect to the Internet.

Two stereotypical law enforcement in suits having just finished tracing a burner phone number

Through Law Enforcement

The average citizen cannot trace the call details of other citizens. Only law enforcement may compel a service provider to report on subscribers and their activities.

The process by which policing officials obtain customer records from telecommunication providers varies based on the company policy and its operating jurisdiction.

Citizen privacy depends significantly on the laws of the municipality, state, province, and country. Choosing service providers in jurisdictions that support privacy is often a better choice.

Before subscribing to any service, review the company’s terms of service and privacy policies. This details the process by which the company complies with law enforcement requests. It can also point to the amount, type, and expiration of data collected. Select a teleco that matches your level of privacy requirements.

How do you get an untraceable phone number? It is not possible to get an entirely untraceable phone number for average citizens. Virtual phone number services provide some anonymity, but carefully review the company’s terms of service. A second physical cell phone and number are better for privacy.

Important Note:

Apps like BurnerPhoner, Hushed, and similar virtual phone number operators are not untraceable nor anonymous. Each company’s terms of service linked above describe the collection and release of call detail records and logs. At their discretion, each may provide third parties and law enforcement with logs and identifiable information to comply with their respective legal requirements.

Not only can phone calls be tracked, but text messages can be traced…most of the time.

Privacy is and should always be a human right. Buying a secondary phone and using it correctly compartmentalizes your private and not-so-private communications. Remember that disposable phone numbers do not always go hand in hand with illegal activities.

While they may sound shady, there’s nothing dubious about protecting your privacy. It doesn’t matter the reason.

Besides giving you the power to control who you share your data information with, other added benefits include minimizing costs and reducing contractual agreements.

Can Anonymous Text Apps be Traced?

What about making calls via anonymous messaging apps? Can texting apps be traced?

Anonymous text apps are not traceable. They allow you to send a message or make calls, but the recipient or the receiver does not recognize who is calling or messaging them because the applications allocate random numbers to calls and texts.

Similarly, all the data stays within the application when you send a message or call. So there is no separate record for these communications.

Technically, the applications do not use your phone network to send a text, but you must have an internet connection to use them. Like Messenger or Skype, the apps won’t show your email address or number.

The apps do not register any data with a network or mobile carrier. Instead of sharing your name with the carrier, the app shares its name. This means that if anyone tries to do a reverse lookup, all they will see is the carrier providing the number.

You can find these apps in AppStore and PlayStore. Both free and paid texting options let you send texts to others with fake numbers or just with no number. Some include Free Tone, Hushed, Text Me, and Phoner.

The Phoner app, for example, completely anonymizes your phone calls and texts. When you communicate, it hides your identity by routing your message via another phone number. So you can give it out without worrying about your identity being revealed. And when you no longer need it, delete it, and it goes out of service. It is available for iOS and Android devices.

Similarly, VoIP calls using applications like Signal, Briar, Session, Telegram, and other secure messaging apps are secure and untraceable…provided you and the recipient both delete the conversation.

Other critical security features include open-source code, default encryption, and minimal data collection.

Additional Notes:

  • Just like burner phones, burner or fake number apps only work if you use them correctly. If you forward calls or send messages from the app to your actual number, you’re still leaving a trail that can be linked to you.
  • Also, note that anonymous texting and calling apps are legally obliged to share the user information they may have if authorities require them to do so. It does not matter the app you’re on or the features you use to hide your communications.

How To Get and Use a Burner Phone CORRECTLY

The following guidelines provide an average level of privacy for getting and using a burner phone and number. You’re free to increase or decrease your operational hygiene.

For example, you can be more cautious by having a friend buy a phone and dispose of it by leaving it active on public transit. For less sensitive situations, you might decide it’s okay to buy a temporary phone with a credit card and later recycle it. You choose.

People in a convenience store line one of which is buying a burner phone number which can't be traced

Buying It

  1. Go to a mobile phone or convenience store instead of a “big box” electronics or grocery store.
  2. Buy a new device with as many voice minutes, texts, and data as you’ll need in one purchase.
    1. Choose a dumb phone over an Android smartphone or iPhone.
    2. Prepaid phone plans only. We do not want a phone bill.
  3. Choose an area code nearby, hopefully in a large city.
  4. Use cash or cryptocurrency and refuse/do not touch a receipt.
    ℹ️Refilling or topping up prepaid minutes on a burner phone is a perfect situation for cryptocurrency. Several services, like Bitrefill, accept cryptocurrency.
  5. Consider your obligations to provide completely accurate information at the time of purchase if your locale requires it.
  6. Act casually, wear average clothing, and look like every other customer.
  7. Activate the phone and SIM card after 1-2 days in a residential area away from your own, preferably near an apartment or crowded neighborhood.
  8. Leave the default, generic, outbound voicemail greeting. Don’t change or customize it.
Older man in a park using his burner phone number so he can't be traced

Using It

We previously showed you that your phone’s location is constantly being tracked. Here’s how to use a burner phone more securely.

  1. Answer phone calls away from your residence and workplace and only if necessary. It’s better to…
  2. Return calls from random locations and varying callback times and lengths.
  3. Avoid carrying your backup and personal phones at the same time.
  4. Make additional, random, unrelated calls of varying lengths to businesses and persons in and outside your area code.
  5. Send a few text messages to numbers in and out of your area, whether you know the recipient or not.
  6. Severely limit providing this secondary phone number online, if at all.
  7. Use this temporary phone and SIM for as short a period as feasible.
  8. Never send standard texts with real or private information.

If you need to send truly private texts, use our guide on sending disappearing messages that self-destruct or expire.

Older woman in a park throwing away her burner phone number so she can't be traced

Disposing of It

  1. Remove and dispose of the SIM chip separately when an eSIM is not in use.
  2. Rough up the phone’s edges and casing or break the screen. Water damage is a good option.
  3. Remove the battery if possible or wrap the phone in aluminum foil.
  4. Place it in a fast-food bag and crumple it.
  5. Throw the bag into a public trash can that many people use and is changed often.

Again, consider this a baseline protocol that can be built upon or loosened depending on your personal situation.

Check out these 9 frequently asked questions about SIM cards…especially if you’re frequently swapping SIM chips.

Encrypted Calling and Texting

There encrypted messaging and calling apps that make it hard for anybody else to eavesdrop on your calls and chats. These include the companies running the applications themselves.

An application like Signal, for example, was designed primarily for safe, encrypted communication. All the calls and texts are secured via end-to-end encryption. It also boasts multiple handy features, like a timer for messages to self-destruct. It is free and available for Windows, Android, and iPhone

Combining Methods

Depending on your needs, it might make sense to employ a disposable burner phone number service outside the Five Eyes countries. If you can register and pay for the service anonymously or pseudonymously, you might forward the calls and texts to a properly-used temporary phone, as described in the previous section.

Similar to how the Tor or onion network works, involving multiple service providers with different technologies and legal jurisdictions can complicate tracing call origins and destinations.

Keep in mind that the more companies or individuals you engage in your practice, the larger the threat surface, which begins to degrade privacy’s primary goal. There’s a balance to achieve.

No Trace Phones (Sort Of) Exist

Most of the smartphones available today can be traced when calling and texting is carried on a cellular network. 

Even mobile data consumed by encrypted messengers has the potential to be traced

There are a few specially designed smartphones that are not only untraceable and less likely to be hacked. These phones usually include physical switches to turn off the various components within the device. Camera, WiFi, Bluetooth, and microphone being disabled allows secure smartphones to be truly disconnected, secure, and untraceable.

Ultimately, it depends on the habits of the smartphone user to have an untraceable phone.

Final Thoughts

Remember, all mobile phones are traceable to varying degrees. The most accessible way to increase privacy is to use a burner phone number.

The only other option to continuously replace a burner phone is to create a secondary smartphone that is hardened against tracking. The Hated One YouTube channel describes GrapheneOS in this video (6m16s@2x) and why you should consider it.

Mike Chu

Mike is a web developer and content writer living as a digital nomad. With more than 20 years of devops experience, he brings his "programmer with people skills" approach to help explain technology to the average user. Check out his full author bio by clicking here.

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