Since their introduction in the 1980s and 1990s, cellphones have entirely transformed the way people communicate and behave.
Cellphones—and their successors, smartphones—have created a new model for interaction between people capable of joining local, national, and global communities.
Of course, with this mobile technology comes its more private uses.
Prepaid phones are one such example.
Originally created for consumers who wanted to opt out of longer-term cellular service plans, lacked the credit score to qualify, or needed a short-term replacement phone, prepaid cellphones have taken on a rather negative connotation over the years.
With movies about spies, double agents, marriage infidelity, hacking, crime, the term “burner phone” has become commonplace referential lingo for suspicious activity.
There are preconceptions related to marketing, as well.
Generally, people think prepaid options are less viable or more expensive than conventional data plans.
Why else would someone choose to have a prepaid phone, if not to leverage its privacy?
In truth, this is really just a lingering stigma.
Do remember, even if you are suspicious, someone having a prepaid phone is not always cause for alarm.
How To Know Someone Has A Prepaid Phone
There are many reasons people might be stowing a prepaid phone, and not all of them are illicit.
For better or worse, people love their anonymity.
However, supposing you have a hunch that someone you know is using one, there are some clever methods to verify this notion.
Keep in mind that prepaid phones are not one-size-fits-all.
Depending on the model of the unknown phone, or any additional privacy software/apps in use on the phone, not every approach can be guaranteed to work.
Alternatively, you might consider going with Occam’s Razor—the simplest route to an explanation—and simply confront the individual you suspect to be using a prepaid phone.
If it’s family, a friend, or a spouse, there’s a lot to be said for directly communicating a concern.
Sleuthing around to find private details about another person toes the thin line between justified and invasive, and there’s probably a larger conversation worth having about trust.
A lie is always possible, but there’s a lot of information to be gleaned from reactions in trust-focused situations.
A clear conscience usually has nothing to hide, or at least very good reasons for doing so.
If you’re left with no other option, or you absolutely must find out if someone has a prepaid phone, this article will provide five methods to potentially substantiate your suspicion and satisfy your curiosity.
1. Recording Equipment And/Or Applications
The most straightforward method of determining whether or not someone is using a secret prepaid phone is to observe them directly.
If the individual is purposely hiding a prepaid phone, they’re probably not going to be using it around you.
This means anticipating where the phone might be used and installing systems to record visual clips or auditory files of its use.
Do remember that you are still subject to basic right-to-privacy laws.
You can’t place recording equipment on property that is not your own.
If you feel that installing a camera or microphone in your home or a shared vehicle could reveal usage of the secret prepaid phone, doing so might be the only sure way to find out.
You could even use your own phone with various sound recording applications.
By leaving your phone around the house, or in range of the suspected individual, you might catch wind of them using a separate phone.
Here are a handful of apps that enable this:
- Smart Recorder—Originally invented to prove a spouse talks in his sleep; simple interface and filters out silence.
- Smart Recorder and Transcriber—Self-explanatory; the app includes an automated transcription service that converts sound into text.
- Sec-Voice Recorder—Quick access app functions and high quality, low memory recordings
- Awesome Voice Recorder—Multiple frequencies for recording; number one recording app in over 35 countries.
- Automatic Call Recorder—Android based. If you are receiving calls from an unknown number you are trying to trace, recording the call might offer extra clues about the identity of the caller. Alternatively, the recordings can serve as evidence in any claim made regarding harassment or threats by the caller.
- Voice Recorder & Audio Editor—iOS based. If you are receiving calls from an unknown number you are trying to trace, recording the call might offer extra clues about the identity of the caller. Alternatively, the recordings can serve as evidence in any claim made regarding harassment or threats by the caller.
- Easy Voice Recorder—Recorder controllable from anywhere on your phone using the notifications bar.
- Voice Recorder—Can set recording schedules.
2. Look For Cellular Connections In The Area
Just about all modern, active cellphones emit a frequency allowing them to send calls, messages, and connect to WiFi or Bluetooth devices.
When engaging with a Bluetooth hub, you are often shown a list of nearby active Bluetooth devices.
Consider using your phone, car, or electronics around the house.
3. Trace The Number (If Available)
Maybe your concern is about a call or message from a private number.
In this case, tracking the number to find its sender might be your aim.
Unfortunately, a prepaid phone does not require the user to associate a number with as much (or any) personal information as a standard cellphone and data plan.
This can make identifying the caller/sender very difficult, and often impossible.
Your best bet here will be in attempting to discern the general location of the caller.
Try the following approaches:
- Search Engine Results. Type the number into your preferred search engine. In fact, try multiple search engines—Google, Yahoo, Bing, and so on. If the number is at all associated with an individual or some manner of group, organization, or business, it should appear in the search results of your chosen engine. There is no guarantee you will find any existing associations with the number in question, however. If nothing else, you should receive some information on the phone number’s area code.
- Reverse Phone Look-Up Services. A bit more in-depth than an individual Google search, reverse phone lookup services will scan public (and sometimes private/premium) records and locate any existing associations with the unknown private number. These services can provide some additional information on area code, geographical data, and the cell phone carrier. Popular reverse phone look-up services include the following:
- CheckPeople (customer support and limitless reports)
- TruthFinder (mobile app, searches are entirely anonymous)
- Intelius (iOS and Android app integration)
- Instant CheckMate (multiple report styles and unlimited search options)
- PeopleFinders (large scale database)
- US Search (in-depth social media scans)
- IDTrue (criminal, marriage, and public records)
- Report the Number to the Proper Authorities. If you feel you are being threatened or harassed by the unknown number, consider reporting it to the police. The police have the authority, resources, and access to private records that enable them to track where the phone was bought, through what means, and by whom. The authorities are likely going to be the best chance you have at identifying an unknown caller using a prepaid phone.
4. Check Receipts And Pay Statements
If you share payment accounts with the suspected individual, you might try evaluating the purchase history in your accounts.
Further, make note of any paper or shared e-mail receipts noting electronics or a prepaid phone.
This might seem too obvious—especially when the suspect is already being private enough to hide a phone.
However, the more vectors for a slip up on their behalf, the better your chances of wrapping up your investigation.
5. Use A Cell Phone Detector
The security and privacy implications behind cellphone use have been thoroughly considered in the tech world.
Many institutions have protocols for moderating and monitoring cell phone use at their events, or in their facilities.
The multimedia capabilities of cell phones are simply too profound to be ignored.
A single phone in the right (or wrong) hands can capture and distribute a massive amount of information in a short period of time.
To counter this, cell phone detectors have been created.
These detectors scan for nearby RF cellular signals, WiFi signals, and/or Bluetooth signals.
In general, they are priced according to the nature of their application: corporate security.
A single unit can cost several hundred dollars or much more, depending on the device’s sophistication.
Using one of these devices should likely be a last resort, and only if you must know if someone is using a prepaid phone in your proximity.
Examples include the following:
- Defcon Protect 1206i—Extremely large frequency range for its scanner capable of detecting low- and high-power signals and FM transmitters. Maintains an operating range of around 30 feet.
- Spy-Hawk Pro-10G—10 MHz to 10 GHz frequency range. Able to return surveillance even on sophisticated privacy devices.
- JMDHKK M8000—1 MHz to 12 GHz frequency range. RF signals, magnetic signals, camera detection capabilities, and LED strength indicators.
- HOHOPROV RF Signal Detector—1 MHz to 6.5 GHz frequency range. Five modes: laser detection mode, beep detection mode, vibration detection mode, LED display detection mode, headset detection mode.
- Eoqo-RF Bug Detector—1 MHz to 8 GHz frequency range. CDMA, WiFI, LED light source detection.
- PocketHound Covert Cell Phone Detector—Passive receiver that is attuned to the standard frequency of most cellphones. Can detect phones up to 75 feet away.
- WolfHound Pro Cell Phone Detector—Detects indoor cellphone use up to 150 feet away unidirectionally. Dual band direction finding antenna system. Extremely expensive.
- Yorkie Contraband Cell Phone Detector—Detects 3G, 4G, and 5G up to 150 feet away unidirectionally. You can set custom attenuation levels to check only for specific frequencies.
How Do Cell Phone Detectors Actually Work?
Cell phone detectors are highly specified security devices that perform radio frequency-based surveillance of a given area.
The amount of ground a single cell phone detector device can cover depends on its design, the frequencies it’s attempting to identify, and whether it’s indoors or outdoors.
Essentially, the device acts as a receiver for incoming transmissions from active RF devices in the area (including cell phones).
Once the receiver detects an input consistent with a cell phone’s frequency, it triggers a notification or alarm.
Security personnel using the device can then identify the cell phone location and its user and ask them to turn off their phone (or confiscate it all together, staying within legal bounds).
Certain devices allow the delivery of notifications to the detected phones in the form of text or voice messages.
For large audience-oriented rooms, such modalities enable a single cell phone detector to moderate the use of many cell phone users at once.
Cell phones that are turned on will always be detectable by these specialized devices, whether they are in standby or active mode.
What Are Cell Phone Detectors Primarily Used For?
If you bothered to check the pricing on any of the models mentioned above, you would’ve found listings as high as $4,000.
There are more affordable options, but even on the low end, you will likely be spending a few hundred dollars for a single cell phone detector.
Why is this?
Where are cell phone detectors used?
Is there an easier way to access one than shelling out thousands of dollars?
The answer: security.
Specifically, institutional security.
Stadium events, large classrooms, worship halls, private tech conferences, early movie showings, and so forth—these are circumstances where cell phones are typically prohibited.
Organizers invest in cell phone detection hardware to ensure people are abiding by the rules and stipulations of their events.
What Is The Best Way To Find Out If Someone Has A Prepaid Phone?
The answer to this question depends on your boundaries, and what you’re hoping to achieve by finding out the truth.
- Personal Relationships
- Chances are good that there is not a strong measure of trust between you and the person in question. If that’s the case, you might be better off addressing the core issues that contributed to the involvement of a secret prepaid phone. Whether you discover a prepaid phone through investigation or not, you won’t be any closer to restoring your sense of trust in this person until you confront the dilemma head-on.
- In terms of sheer practicality, the obvious choice here is to implement a cell phone detector and physically track the device down. This is an exceptionally costly option relative to alternatives, but it’s the only one that is effectively guaranteed to return a concrete result. The risk is that the individual in question may not have a hidden phone at all—meaning you’ll have potentially wasted hundreds of dollars on a piece of advanced security equipment. The flipside to that is that you might discover your suspicions were correct. In such a case, you might still need to explain why you purchased such an expensive device for the sole purpose of snooping.
- Professional or Academic Settings
- If you’re more concerned with ensuring your students, workers, or event attendees are staying off their phones during a designated time slot or activity, taking a more mechanical approach might make sense. You will probably not be looking through your students’ paper receipts to find out if they have a private, prepaid phone. You just need to ensure they do not use it during work or class.
- Again, the only choice that makes sense for institutional applications is to implement a cell phone detector device. A cell phone detector allows for more direct control over cell phone use within a classroom, conference, concert hall, or other related settings.
- Non-Personal Relationships
- There are few circumstances that could justify outright spying on an acquaintance or stranger to find out if they are using a prepaid phone. You simply should not do that. However, if you have been receiving harassing or threatening calls and/or messages from a device you suspect to be private or prepaid, you are within your rights to report them to the proper authorities.
- There is no “best” way to determine if an acquaintance or stranger is using a prepaid phone. Do not invade the privacy of others. If you feel your own privacy is being invaded, you should move to involve the police—but it is highly ill-advised (and for many reasons, likely illegal) for you to track them down yourself.