The specific, gritty nuts and bolts of prepaid phones
June 1, 2016 9:18 AM   Subscribe

My wife is writing a novel that includes a scene where a character buys and uses a prepaid cellphone. Neither of us has ever done that, and for the sake or realism, she'd like to know exactly what the steps involved are.

Her further explication:

I'm interested in learning the ins and out of "burner" phones, if that's still the term. Specifically I was looking at Tracphones because I know they are sold at Walmart (also some versions at Target). I'm wondering what the exact mechanics are to activating one - do you buy the phone and also buy a card and then put minutes onto the phone yourself without further help - as in calling a 1-800 number? Is it usable the second you buy it?

I think it would need to be this way - the character has to be able to do this all on her own without anyone knowing she even has the phone. Also she has no access to other phones, etc.
posted by the phlegmatic king to Technology (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Usually the phone comes with some minutes. You call a number or go to a website and follow the activation instructions, punch in some numbers, usually restart the phone and it's ready.

But you could answer this question for real for $20 and have the phone for future feasibility checks.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:24 AM on June 1, 2016 [10 favorites]

You have to activate your burner. There's some pretty good stuff on this in The Wire episode, Back-Burners. The guy charged with buying the burners actually activates them and programs them with numbers for the big boss.

You can buy burners at convenience stores and gas stations, truck stops, etc.

If someone was using it to commit a crime, he/she would pay cash for it, and preferably at a place without video surveillance, so more likely some convenience store in Bucksnort, TN, rather than Wal-Mart or Target. Also, you can buy prepaid Visa cards, at grocery stores to use to reload the minutes.

You can activate them on-line or using an 800 number, and when you buy them, they come with a certain number of minutes. You can reload them. You have to choose an area code for activation, and some providers, T-Mobile, ATT, will have you choose a plan.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:30 AM on June 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you can get to Walmart or Family Dollar or CVS on your own, activating a burner phone without anyone besides the cashier knowing you have it is 100% feasible. You just go to the store and buy the phone, and there are instructions in the package. It shouldn't take more than a half-hour or so to start up, probably less. If you need more minutes than come with the phone you buy a refill card. The character should use cash for all the purchases if she wants to cover her tracks.
posted by mskyle at 9:43 AM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

The big deal that people talk about with burners is that there are a LOT of nutty numbers to type in and so even though these phones are otherwise nice dumb phones, sometimes people prefer the weird AARP-sponsored phones which have a monthly fee, but no zillion numbers. This YouTube video (there are many) talks through what's involved.
posted by jessamyn at 9:48 AM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

YouTube! There are videos of people doing everything in the world, including this. Here's one of someone unboxing and activating an (older) tracphone. Probably with a little searching you could find one that was more up to date.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 10:43 AM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can buy burners at convenience stores and gas stations, truck stops, etc.

You can find them in vending machines, too. Our local mall has a couple of them.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:46 AM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

You should just go buy one and follow the instructions. Should cost about $20-30. $10-15 for the phone and $5-10 of minutes.

I had a broken phone and no way to fix it for a few days, and picked up a TracPhone for emergencies. It's surprisingly inconvenient to set the phone up.
posted by gregr at 11:23 AM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I would not use Tracfone for this scene. I have had several Tracfone phones. It goes like this:

You buy the phone, put the battery in it and then charge it for 4-6 hours before activating it. Then you turn the phone on and call, iirc.

If you have never had a phone with them before, at one time, you needed access to a landline to activate it. I think you still do, but I am not sure as I have had an account with them for years.

If you have a history with them and have already set up an online account with them, you do not need access to a landline because you can do some piece of it online through your Tracfone account.

I did once purchase a burner phone at a convenience store while traveling and was able to activate it fairly promptly while on the road. I cannot tell you the brand or any details. It was years ago.

I love Tracfone, but they do not make a plausible burner phone. They have my name and email address and possibly physical mailing address via the online account.
posted by Michele in California at 11:33 AM on June 1, 2016

I bought a burner a while back from 7-11.

On the gift card racks there are voucher cards with no inherent value representing SIM cards and minutes you take up to the cashier; if you want a phone you ask for the model you want there as they and the SIMs are kept behind the counter for obvious reasons. Can't remember if the voucher had a UPC for the cashier to scan or if the packaging for the actual SIM card had it; I would assume the latter. I don't know if the vouchers correlate to specific SIMs (I.e. Share a serial number), or how easy it would be to track where and when a specific SIM was sold using UPCs and point of sale data.

Minute cards are also redeemed at the counter, they scan the minutes voucher, you pays your amount, and either your receipt or a specific slip is printed with a redemption code that you dial for time to be added, prefixing it with with *SomeNumbersSpecificToThatProvider.

The phone comes from the factory with the battery at least somewhat charged I think, and you can set it up quick: pop in the SIM, turn on the phone, activate using another *SomeNumbers provided by the vendor, add minutes. You probably get something like 5 minutes gratis to set up. Good to go.

If I were trying to do things on the sly, I'd give some rando outside the convenience store $100 to buy me the cheapest phone, the SIM and 25 minutes and tell them to keep the change.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:58 PM on June 1, 2016

I should have added this was at a 7-11 in Winnipeg; MMV depending on location, etc.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:04 PM on June 1, 2016

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