U.S. authorities are investigating a recent sharp increase in purchases of untraceable cell phones. They're concerned the phones could be for terrorist purposes, but as VOA's Ernest Leong reports, there may be other forces at work.
Cell phones have become an indispensable part of many people's everyday lives. But officials say certain cell phones -- the disposable ones -- can also be used for sinister purposes. Former FBI agent Jack Cloonan says, "One can walk in, purchase it in cash, you don't have to put down a credit card, buy any amount of minutes to it, and you don't frankly know who bought this."
Authorities say disposable phones are widely used by criminal gangs and terrorists. According to officials, disposable cell phones were used to detonate the train bombs in Madrid, Spain in 2004.
Telecom consultant Roger Entner adds, "Now in Europe it's impossible to get a phone without ID."
Disposable phones recently bought en masse in the U.S. states of California and Texas, were then sent to the Middle East, arousing federal authorities' suspicions. According to the FBI, the individuals who bought the phones had "links to suspected terrorist cells," and were taken into custody.
The so-called throw away phone was cited by U.S. President George Bush as one justification for the wire-tapping clause in the PATRIOT Act.
"Law enforcement officials can now use what's called ‘roving wire taps,’ which will prevent a terrorist from getting a message out to one of his buddies," said the president.
There is another possible explanation: law-abiding people may want an untraceable phone simply to reduce the chances the government can keep track of them.
Officials acknowledge it is possible the two documented large purchases were made for legitimate reasons -- for resale, or simply given away to friends and family.
Law enforcement officials have used the disposable phones themselves while operating in hostile environments. The FBI investigation into the purchases is ongoing. They are also looking into a third large-scale purchase, but would not elaborate further.