Tech Tuesday: What’s a Burner Phone?

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TT burner phones

You may never have heard the term “burner phone” before. But if you’ve seen a spy movie in the last, oh, 20 years or so, you already know what a burner phone is.

Simply put, a burner phone is typically a cheap, disposable, low-tech mobile phone with an anonymous phone number that can’t be tracked back to you. The name comes from the fact that it can be easily and casually disposed of—”burned”—in an emergency. Unlike smartphones with big screens and data plans, burner phones harken back to the early days of cell technology, when the primary things you did with them were call and text.

These days, such phones can be had for next to nothing. Buy a prepaid usage card for minutes and/or texts, and you’re good to go. (Or, alternately, an old smartphone without a data plan can still be used the same way anywhere there’s a WiFi connection.)

Not hard to see why spies, drug dealers or other ne’er-do-wells might want a stash of these gizmos.

Now, there are legitimate reasons why a burner phone might be a fine idea: as a cheap emergency backup; maintaining your privacy when creating listings for online sites such as Craigslist; or just using a cheap cell phone.

Then again, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how a burner phone could easily and quietly be exploited by teens who want a mobile connection that their parents don’t know about. Wondering why Johnny or Julie didn’t pitch a fit when you confiscated his or her smartphone? A secret burner phone may be the reason.

Wall Street Journal contributor Julie Jargon profiled this issue in her article “Teens Smuggle Burner Phones to Defy Parents.” She writes,

For many teens, and even younger kids, smartphones have become a lifeline—the source of all social connection. The loss of a phone and the fear of missing out can cause teens to resort to desperate measures to restore that connection.

Jargon talked with retired police detective and tech expert Rich Wistocki, who said this about teen “suppliers” of such phones: “In almost every high school across the country there is a kid who sells burner phones from their locker.” In other words, if your kids want a burner phone, they’re going to find one. It may be as simple as going to school, in fact.

So how can parents respond to this issue?

Jargon mentions four practical, common-sense strategies for dealing with this emerging tech concern: paying careful attention to online behavior; monitoring your WiFi network access; having the “tech talk” about online dangers; and setting clear and firm boundaries with regard to phone usage.

Over and above that, however, perhaps what’s even more important is building a relationship of trust. This, obviously, is a multifaceted endeavor for parents. But Focus on the Family is committed to providing you the resources you need to understand your teens, the challenges they face and deepening your relationship with them.

And Plugged In will continue to be your go-to source for new tech trends that impact teens and families as they continue to emerge.

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