Investigating Pre-Paid Cell Phones Used for Illegal Activity

Investigating Pre-Paid Cell Phones Used for Illegal Activity

Prepaid cell phones are a challenge for private investigators, law enforcement and skip tracers.  A pre-paid cell phone can be purchased for approximately $30.00.

No name is required. No I.D. check. No billing information. No questions asked. Just walk into Wal-Mart or any other outlet that sells prepaid cell phones and you’ll walk out with a working phone line that’s virtually impossible to trace. If you’re a bad guy in the crime business, this is a good thing. If your job is tracking down bad guys, it’s a bad thing.

Did you know that phone company identifier searches at and and similar searches elsewhere don’t identify most prepaid cell phones? These searches are based on telephone company records called NPA/NXX data. NPA/NXX data identifies the owner of blocks of phone numbers. But in the case of most prepaid phone services, their phone numbers are purchased or leased from traditional cell phone companies that are listed in the NPA/NXX records.

For example, Tracfone leases service from several different cell carriers. So, you could run a phone number and it could come back as a Verizon phone through NPA/NXX data when in fact it’s a prepaid Tracfone. Likewise, prepaid service Boost Mobile could come back as Sprint or Nextel. The exception to this is MetroPCS and Cricket prepaid phones, which usually come up under their own names.

I recently posted messages on private investigation newsgroups asking for phone numbers that were absolutely, positively known to be for prepaid cell phones. The phone numbers were then run through NPA/NXX data to see how they would come up. Here are the results:

  • Tracfone comes up as Verizon or T-Mobile or Cingular
  • Boost Mobile comes up as Sprint or Nextel
  • Go Phone comes up as AT&T
  • T-Mobile To Go comes up as T-Mobile
  • MetroPCS comes up as MetroPCS or Royal Street Communications
  • Cricket comes up as Cricket or Leap Wireless

A private investigator who gets a hit through NPA/NXX data showing a cell phone is with a major cell phone service provider like Verizon should heed warning. The private eye may subpoena the records, only to find it’s been leased to Tracfone. A new subpoena is directed at Tracfone, only to learn that no subscriber information is on file. In the two weeks it took to get subpoena results returned from the phone companies, the bad guy has since tossed the phone out the car window and already has a new one. The private investigator might be feeling like he’s been tossed out the window, too.

Robert Scott is a Los Angeles-based private investigator and is the author of The Investigator’s Little Black Book.

© 2008 Crime Time Publishing Co., Inc. Originally published at

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