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Burner Phones

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When spies or criminals need to communicate while performing illegal activities, they often take the precaution of using cheap, pre-paid cellphones, commonly known as "burners". This allows them to quickly dispose of said burner if law enforcement or other criminals use it to track them.

Some Consummate Professional criminals even go as far as to completely destroy their burners to make sure it can't be used to track them.

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This can also be Played for Drama when an innocent or naive character fails to use a burner, after which a more knowledgeable character snatches the phone away from his ear and hurriedly tosses it out the nearest window.

This is Truth in Televisionnote , as Cellphone Surveillance is used by law enforcement agencies to monitor the movements of people from their mobile phones.

See also Cutting the Electronic Leash. No relation to the Samsung Note 7.


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Examples

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    Films — Live Action 
  • In The Bourne Ultimatum, we see Jason Bourne buy a prepaid cell phone, which he then smuggles into the pocket of a journalist with whom he wants to communicate. While the agents observing Bourne and the journalist are perfectly prepared beforehand to surveil the journalist's own phone, this new phone comes completely out of the blue from their perspective, and thus it takes them a while until they are able to track it down and to eavesdrop.
  • In Polar, Duncan Vizla uses the same phone and only ever speaks for no less than 30 seconds before hanging up and breaking the sim card before putting in a new one. The only time he ever breaks this rule is when he's luring a Damocles hit squad into a trap.

    Literature 

    Live-Action TV 
  • Breaking Bad: Burners are regularly snapped in half and otherwise disposed of to cover up criminal activity over the course of the series. Saul has a whole drawer full of different burners. In Season 2, Walt manages to deflect Skyler's suspicions about him having a second cell phone. That is, until Walt is being sedated for cancer surgery, Skyler asks him about his cell phone, and Walt says, "Which one?" This leads to Skyler finding the burner phone and unspooling Walt's entire web of lies.
  • Burner phones are also a key plot element in Breaking Bad's prequel series Better Call Saul, and its lead character Jimmy's descent into becoming the corrupt mob lawyer Saul Goodman. With his law license suspended in Season 4, he takes a job managing a cell phone store, but a combination of boredom and a temptation to the dark side leads him to take a side job selling his shop's wares as burner phones to lowlifes and criminals.
  • Everyone in Burn Notice uses burners constantly.note  It's probably impossible to identify a single episode in the seven-season show that doesn't have at least one shot of someone throwing away a cell phone. In one episode, a client doesn't have any cash so he offers to pay in cell phones from his store, and Michael grins that he might be able to find a use for them.
  • Daredevil (2015): Matt Murdock gives a burner phone to Claire Temple so she can keep in touch with him, and uses one himself for all calls he makes while operating as Daredevil. Before finding out the truth about him, Foggy teases Matt about using it for a secret girlfriend.
  • Adam usually has these on Forever, though rather than law enforcement, it was more likely a way to keep Henry guessing about his identity.
  • The "clone phones" from Orphan Black. Sarah is surprised to see that Beth has two phones but quickly learns that the pink one is only for calling the other clones, Alison and Cosima. At the start of season 2, she's hacked by Rachel Duncan and has to take other people's phones, so Felix gets new green phones for the clone club to use. Then in season 3 he replaces those with blue phones, just in case. And now in season 4 the Clone Club has purple ones.
  • Burners become crucial to The Wire's wiretapping cases from the second season onwards. Much of the series revolves around a surveillance and countersurveillance arms race between police and drug dealers.
  • Frequently used by both heroes and villains in Elementary.
  • This was seen all the time on 24 in which the characters seemed like they were on the phone half the time anyway. Oftentimes these characters, including protagonist Jack Bauer himself, didn't want to be traced, hence the regular use of burner phones. Also played with in various ways such as placing a phone in another vehicle to trick any tracking that might be done.
  • Parodied on Community when Chang does this, only to remember he just threw away his only cell phone, and then digs it out of the trash.
  • It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: When Mac and Charlie are stuck in an empty pool, Charlie reveals that he has a prepaid cell phone. Mac calls it a "burner" and says that only drug dealers have those.
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    Music 
  • The Dingees' song "Who Stole the Soul in Rock-n-Roll" ends with a recording of two men telling an interviewer: "Sometimes we get rid of our cell phones so the FBI and the CIA can't track us! And sometimes we get rid of them 'cause our bills is too high."

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • Grand Theft Auto V: This is Played for Laughs when Lamar, a dumb crook, makes a call on his personal cell phone to demand a ransom after having kidnapped a rival gang member. Franklin quickly grabs the phone away from Lamar and throws it out of the car window.
  • The people trafficking sidequest in Watch_Dogs involves finding burner phones which belonged to Maurice Vega, the guy who tried to assassinate Aiden (and killed his niece by mistake) because his wife was being held hostage. Given that Aiden has him in his clutches from the start of the game, ditching them didn't help, and their only purpose in the game is same as any other audiolog collectible.
  • A pre-paid phone and a card used to load it with minutes show up as evidence during your investigation into the disappearance of Rachel Amber in Life Is Strange. It's owned by Nathan Prescott and used to text with his drug deal contacts.

    Web Original 
  • Homestar Runner: In "I Killed Pom Pom!", when Homestar thinks he's guilty of murder and tries to set up an alibi for himself, he hangs around the King Of Town's castle and talks on a "cell phone". The phone is actually a piece of cardboard with a screen and keypad drawn on it—and it has "BURNER" written across the screen.

    Western Animation 
  • Exaggerated in a Futurama episode where a "nectar" dealer gives Leela and Amy the number to her disposable cell phone in case they change their minds about her product. Then a minute later they call it, before she even leaves the room, and the dealer tosses the phone into a wastebasket immediately after.

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