Why do online services require a mobile phone number to sign up for their services? Reasons given are “to make sure you are not a robot”, or “to prevent abuse”, among others. Total garbage. The real reason is to identify you, harvest data about you and ultimately sell it to the highest bidder or hand it over to a gov’t agency. Along the journey to reclaim my online privacy, there have been a handful of services that I want to join, but require a mobile phone number to create an account. So how to circumvent their efforts and obfuscate my identity? In this article, I’ll describe my experience using a burner phone to activate online accounts and hopefully claim victory in the end.
In this experiment, I want to join a popular chat service using my desktop PC. And I know they require a mobile phone number. I will purchase a “burner phone” from a local retail store with paper fiat currency. Then I will activate the plan anonymously online using VPN and/or TOR network. Finally I will sign up for an account on the chat platform using the anonymous burner phone. Am I going to unnecessary lengths to remain anonymous? Privacy is a human right. It’s the principle that matters to me. I’m simply claiming my right.
It’s worth mentioning there are premium services like https://www.burnerapp.com/ and https://quackr.io that offer “physical mobile phone” numbers for rent or based on subscription. In the case of quackr, you receive a dedicated mobile phone number to verify accounts. The text messages received will appear within the website’s interface. I tried the free service without success. The premium mobile numbers may work. Try it at your own risk.
Purchasing the Burner Phone
After withdrawing $60 USD from a nearby ATM, I drove to my local Walmart and headed back to the Electronics department. I asked the guy at the counter to point me to the prepaid phones. He showed me a dozen options from five or six carriers. Apparently, phones and plans are sold separately. After reviewing options, I decided to buy an LG Classic flip phone for $29.95 USD and a 3-month 60-minute talk and text plan for $19.95 USD, both from Tracfone. The cashier scanned both items, gave me a total, and I handed over the cash. Simple as that… I guess.
I thought about the fact that I was carrying my de-googled smart phone while I was in the store. I checked it and disabled Wi-Fi. Should I have left the phone at home? Yes, probably. I also considered wearing a mask (totally acceptable now in Clown World). But I hate masks, so I accepted the fact that Walmart captured my face on CCTV. I have a pretty good hunch Walmart will not ID me with facial recognition software. They have no motivation to do so. But the technology is there.
Activating the Phone Plan
Back home, I logged into my Macbook Pro running Debian 10, and activated Surfshark VPN on the command line. The phone plan card comes with a scratch-off PIN and UPC symbol. There are simple instructions on the back of the card that says:
- Scratch off the gray strip below to obtain your 15-digit PIN number.
- To Activate your service, go to Tracfone.com or call 1-800-867-7183.
- To Refill your service use any of the following:
- Call 611 from your phone
- Download our FREE Tracfone My Account App (Smartphones only)
- Go to the “Prepaid” Menu and select “Add Airtime” (Basic phones only)
- Visit Tracfone.com
- Call 1-800-867-7183
I fired up TOR browser and went to tracfone.com. First I entered the phone’s IMEI number and clicked the “Continue” button. Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing happened. Hmmmm… I decided to try activation using Firefox, still over VPN. This time, the website continued on.
- The next question was “In what zip code will you use the phone most?” Assuming this was to assign an area code, I entered an arbitrary zip code in the city where I was currently connected to VPN.
- Next question, “Do you have an Airtime plan?” I entered the PIN from the scratch-off card.
- Next step was “Log into my account” or “Create account”. Thankfully there was “Skip this step” in small print.
- Next step, “Turn your phone OFF and back ON. Make a call. If your call does not connect, wait a few minutes, reboot your phone and try again. After completing the call, text 411 to 611611 and ask for your Balance.” I did all these things and everything worked!
Apparently the service end date is 11 Jan 2023, service days are 90, minutes/text/data all are 180. Once I reach the 90-day mark, I’ll have to top up the service if I still need the phone number.
Signing up for the Online Account
In the past, I tried to create an account on this very popular chat service (who will remain unnamed) with just an email address. They don’t like that. I get a message that said “Something doesn’t look right here. To login, you’ll need to verify your account with a phone number.” Sure… total load of crap. All you want is my real identity. Now that I have an activated burner phone that appears to be registered in a city I don’t live, I’ll be happy to provide my phone number. Last step, I enter the new phone number into the registration form, and #&$^%, I’m in.
What about Telegram?
If you’re considering this approach with Telegram, be aware that as of 7 June 2021, they will not send a verification code via SMS text. They will only send the verification code through a Telegram app that has been installed on a mobile device. So in my case, I tried installing the desktop program first, then verifying with the burner phone number. Not happening. They require an instance of the Telegram app to be installed on a smartphone to register. It is amazing and ridiculous especially since they claim to be a “privacy respecting” app.
Lesson learned: Hold on to that burner phone number!
Be sure to use a phone number that is exclusively yours for the duration of your account. If the burner phone number is temporary, it will be recycled back into the pool of available numbers. Someone else getting that number can potentially use Telegram and get access to your account and messages. I think it’s highly unlikely but worth mentioning.
One could punch holes through my methods like swiss cheese. I’m not stupid. I realize that 100% anonymity is an elusive target in this dystopian world. You could argue that by just activating the burner phone through Tracfone that Verizon (the carrier) can triangulate my location to a close proximity and in theory a 3-digit agency could spy on me while the phone is turned on. Yeah I get it. But I can also minimize the chance of those things happening. For this experiment, the goal was to sign up for a chat service on my PC and not give away my identity by way of a mobile phone number. While the account creation was successful, I question whether maintaining a burner phone number is worth it financially in the long run. If you must maintain an account anonymously, I figure this will be a $10/month expense just to keep a dedicated phone number.
I’d like to know what you think. Is it worth the resources and effort to stay anonymous? Tell me your thoughts in the comments or contact me and let me know.