The FBI is investigating multiple reports of bulk purchases of prepaid cell phones in Missouri.
According to various local media reports, law enforcement officials in at least six Missouri towns reported that customers bought a large quantity of the prepaid phones at local Walmart stores.
Prepaid cell phones are popular for a number of reasons, including that they can be bought with cash and don’t require a contract or a credit check like many wireless plans. People can pay for the minutes as they use them, and buy more calling time whenever they need it. But the phones are also attractive in other circles because they’re difficult to trace and can be easily disposable.
Criminals have been known to use prepaid phones, often called burners, to avoid police detection because they can be purchased anonymously and don’t require disclosing a lot of personal information. Terrorists have also been known to use cell phones to detonate explosives.
The first batch of bulk cell phone buys was on Dec. 5, when buyers reportedly went to a Walmart in Lebanon around 4 a.m. and bought 59 cell phones. Law enforcement officials in Macon, Ava, Jefferson City, Columbia and Cape Girardeau also reported similar phone buys on that weekend. Fox News reported that more than 200 prepaid cell phones were purchased in total at the stores.
The purchases came days after a husband and wife killed 14 people and injured 21 more in a Dec. 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, in what has been called an act of terrorism.
The American public has been on high alert since that attack.
Searches for concealed carry permits, which allow people to carry hidden handguns in public, have surged to record levels, and a Public Religion Research Institute survey released last week found 47 percent of all Americans fear they or someone in their family will be a terrorism victim.
Americans have long been encouraged to report any kind of suspicious activity through the Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign. That’s exactly what the Walmart stores and local law enforcement authorities appear to be doing.
Speaking to the Kansas City Star, FBI spokesperson Bridget Patton said law enforcement officials were “acting out of an abundance of caution” in alerting the FBI about the phone buys.
“We have seen similar purchases of bulk cell phones in the past, and it has been concluded that these transactions were unrelated to terrorism,” Patton told the newspaper.
The Kansas City Star also spoke to law enforcement officials in Macon. Sheriff’s Sgt. Curt Glover noted that people have been known to purchase burner phones and resell them at higher prices.
“I do not feel there’s an immediate threat to the community,” Glover told the newspaper. “This has been going on for the last 15 years. They sell them and make a whole lot more money.”
There weren’t any arrests this month because buying a lot of cell phones at once isn’t illegal, and retired FBI Agent Jeff Lanza told the Kansas City Star that a link to terrorism appears unlikely.
“If you were planning to use those in a terrorist act, you wouldn’t be buying in bulk and attracting attention to yourself,” Lanza told the newspaper. “It would be a stupid way to start buying things to be used as bomb detonators because the first thing people do is call the police.”
The FBI has also been notified about a theft of propane canisters in Kansas City, Patton told the Kansas City Star, but the bureau is leaving the investigations of those thefts to local authorities.
The fact that propane can be used in improvised explosive devices raised some alarm bells, particularly because they reportedly occurred around the time of the prepaid phone purchases. But there’s currently no evidence suggesting the propane thefts and phone buys were related.
Americans are asked to remain vigilant and tell police if they notice suspicious activity.