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Burner Is a Handy Way to Grab a Throwaway Phone Number

Burner Is a Handy Way to Grab a Throwaway Phone Number

Burner phones aren't just for criminals and spies. Sometime there is a very practical -- and completely legal -- reason for wanting to use a temporary and disposable phone number. Burner - Disposable Phone Numbers is an app that provides just that, and for way less than the cost of buying an actual burner phone.

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
08/13/12 5:00 AM PT

Burner - Disposable Phone Numbers, an app from Ad Hoc Labs, is available for US$1.99 at the App Store.

Burner - Disposable Phone Numbers
Burner - Disposable Phone Numbers

Burner phones are not just for criminals. They're also not just for guys who are caught in Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne situations where misguided law enforcement wants to catch them as much as the bad guys. No, a burner phone can be handy for nearly everyone, it turns out, and it even can be used for things that have nothing to do with nighttime nefarious activities -- like selling stuff on Craigslist or crank calling your neighbor and asking him to stop playing Lady GaGa so loudly in the morning.

Burner phones, also known as "pay-as-you-go" phones, are the ones you buy in a box from a retail store and then use without needing personal identification or a contract. Unless you screw up, they are essentially anonymous tools for communication. When you're done with the phone, you toss it in a garbage can or in the back of a moving pickup truck so that whomever is chasing you follows a dead end or doesn't know where you are.

There's an app for that.

It's called "Burner - Disposable Phone Numbers," and it works for the iPhone. Basically, for $2 you can get yourself a workable phone number with a local area code that you can use for a week or 20 minutes of talk time, whichever comes first. And if you're done with it, you can delete it -- or burn it -- at any time. If you need a burner number for a longer period of time, you can buy additional numbers through the app or extend your existing numbers.

To buy numbers or extend them, you purchase credit packs. A three-credit pack will get you a number and the aforementioned seven days and 20 minutes of talk time usage. An eight-credit pack is $4.99, a 15-credit pack $7.99, and a 25-credit pack costs $11.99. Doing the math, $12 will get you 8 different numbers ... or you can keep a number indefinitely by adding credits to it to extend the talk time and length of time it's active.

Call Me Maybe

Of course, the burner number is only limited by your imagination. If you don't like giving out your personal number to potential crazy stalker chicks or dudes from karaoke night at a dive bar, you can use it in social media situations where you need to post a phone number but you don't want your real number available online to just anyone forever. You could use it for online dating. You could even use a number for those situations where you need to open official accounts but you don't want to be called by the company for future telemarketing or even data harvesting-efforts.

There are plenty of ways to keep extra phone lines around or use VoIP line services, but the main point of Burner is to let you quickly and easily create a brand new phone number to use in a situation that you might not have imagined until seconds before you need a private, working phone number.

It's a pretty cool idea, really. And personally, I appreciate the ability to be mostly anonymous. I know that whenever I sell things on Craigslist to strangers, for example, I have to make a judgement call about my phone number, my address and location, and a meeting point. After that, my needs for a private number are likely to be pretty slim.

The terms of service state that Ad Hoc Labs will provide information to law enforcement if they are legally required to, so I doubt this could work as well as a real burner phone -- just in case you're an inactive secret agent with repressed memories and all manner of hell suddenly breaks loose on you.

How It Works

The overall process is pretty simple. The original $1.99 app fee gets you one burner number for 7 days and 20 minutes of talk time. To set up the app, you need to receive a text message with a code number to enter into the app. And if you decide to create a burner number, you can name it and add it to your contacts list so you recognize the number when it's used. To make a call, you dial out through the app itself. Easy enough, except you don't have access to your contact list, so you'll have to manually type the number in through the app. It makes sense because how often do you need to call your own contacts with a burner number?

The caller ID on the other end shows the burner number and a location. The burner number that I created listed the city where I live ... even though the iPhone number I have for my real phone originated from a different city altogether. Plus, when I created the burner number (you can choose your area code), I was traveling and in a different city. Interesting. I'm not sure if the app system knew to create the number in my home city or if it was just luck.

To answer a call on your own iPhone that's going to your burner number, your own iPhone caller ID will identify the burner number on your screen. When you answer, be patient -- the call connection will take a couple seconds longer than normal, and you'll have a chance to respond to a voice prompt if you want to take the call. Press #1, and with a beep, your call will be connected.

To send a text message, you tap in the destination number through the app, then tap in the message and send it off. On the receiving end, it looks like a regular text message.

Not for 911!

I'm not sure about the all electronic ninjutsu that goes on behind the scenes, but Ad Hoc Labs makes it clear that you should not use your burner numbers for 911 calls. That's probably because it could make it difficult for a 911 operator to figure out where the call is coming from.

All in all, it's pretty easy to use, and I'm happy to see its existence for the world, if only because sometimes you just might need to talk to someone who you'd rather not be talking with ever again. It happens, and when it does, being ready with a $1.99 investment in Burner seems, well, downright prudent. And maybe a little spy-thrillerish.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.


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