Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Survival Wednesday - No Such Thing As Untraceable

So today we explore the concept of survival in the field of Private Investigation

For my first book, Purple Knot, in which the heroine is a detective, I did so much research that I started to scare my family. 

Not really, but they were impressed by the tricks of the trade I shared at dinner.

Something that really baked their noodle was the concept of untraceable cell phones not really being all that...well, untraceable. 

In the movies, sure, you get an ominous call from a stalker or a kidnapper and its just like it came from way to trace it, right?  

Uh, maybe not.

Part of my research took me to a great book by Steven Kerry Brown called The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigating. As a jumping off point for your research into the ins and outs of trade, this is a wonderful place to start. Of course, its just an overview, but the book offers some great myth busting along with facts.

One such myth is the Untraceable Cell Phone.  In fact it just might be easier to hit *67 than go to the trouble of buying a "Throw Away" cell to make those calls...if you were a fictional bad guy, that is.

Here are the reasons why...

  • Let's say you paid in cash, so they can't trace you, right?

Well...that's a start, but really, that's not enough to cover your tracks. If you make a call with the phone, even to those who have no caller ID, law enforcement can get a record of numbers that called a victim's phone.

  • So they have your what? I paid in cash, so no name. I'm in the clear.

Well, not so much your name...but where you live and what you look your anonymity just went down a few notches.

Retailers keep track of the phones they sell via an Electronic Serial Number (ESN) programmed into it.  The cell company that activates the phone knows which ESN number went to which stores.
  • So what, you say? Thousands of people shop at that particular store. They wouldn't be able to know who bought the cell phone or when...I'm safe.


Cell phones require activation at the time of purchase. Look around your store next time...see any cameras? Guess who is on a time-coded recording?  Now guess who now has the cell number, where you bought it, when you bought it...and now, a photo of you buying it?

  • Its just a picture of a random person who paid cash. No one knows who I am...I'm still one step ahead of the good guys.'re not, really.
If you called anyone else on that phone, all they have to do is show a picture of you (the one from the store) to those people...and unless you hang with criminals - which is possible, you are a fictional bad guy - someone will tell them your name.

  • My den of thieves will never reveal my evil identity!

They don't have to. Because every time you turn on that phone, if law enforcement is monitoring your cell number...they can pinpoint the cell towers you are pinging off of.  So they wait to see the area...and they come armed with your picture and ask...and wait...and sooner or later --- You're toast.

Now since this is all for fiction writing purposes only, we can take liberties with technology. Diabolical minds are able to outwit these types of moves by law enforcement thus ratcheting up the conflict and tension. 

**Remember, your main character has to stand out from the rest...their own unique ability or approach or insight are what saves the day.**

If you use the facts to set up an impossible situation, then getting out of it and out smarting the villain is all the more sweet.

Keep in mind that knowing how the system works helps to open up the imagination to ways around it. As always, research is a key component to writing a great story.

Until next time...Go Write!


Elena Solodow said...

Great rundown, Raquel!

Roland D. Yeomans said...

You do have an arsenal of covert information. Better watch out. Those black helicopters will be circling over your house!

Have a healing, magical Christmas week, Roland

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good to know! And in this day and age, there's almost no way to hide anymore.

Janet Johnson said...

Wow. You are awesome at the research thing! Very interesting. :)

RaShelle said...

Raquel - This is great! Have you ever watched the series Veronica Mars? She's a teenage private investigator and I learned all sorts of cool PI stuff from her. Mwahahahahaha.

Lydia K said...

This is so fascinating! Can I hire you for some investigating?

Eric W. Trant said...

Eventually I'm going to jail for reading your website!

I'm in semiconductors and we make cell phone chips and so I knew most of that.

Don't forget GPS, and "off" doesn't always mean "off". The phone may still be transmitting (in "sleep" mode). If you want to disable a cell phone without destroying it, remove the battery and SIM card, don't just turn it off.

In fact, destroy the SIM card. That's a fingerprint.

If you want an anonymous phone, you'll need to hack it and reprogram. With an off-the-shelf phone -- WITHOUT GPS! -- it wouldn't be that hard.

Here's how:

1A) Buy a generic phone.

1B) Get an anonymous PO Box using a pseudo.

2) Hook up with someone online who knows how to reprogram a cell phone. Believe me, those guys are out there, you just need to find them. They may be overseas, so be careful with the address as it could elicit a search.

3) Mail them your phone. Wire them money.

4) They reprogram. They mail it back.

5) You now have a completely anonymous phone.

(Plan B is to reprogram the phone yourself, but that takes time and learning and you could screw it up. It would remove the middle-man, though.)

If the law gets as far as your emails or the PO Box, it was too late by then anyway, because they already had some other starting point where you screwed up.

They may be able to trace the cell phone to a few towers, but they have no picture of you or record of purchase. The cell phone, at least, has been removed as a starting point for the investigation.

Furthermore, if one-way communication is all your character needs, use the mail. Snail mail, I mean. That's still the most anonymous and unrestricted form of communication.

Just don't print from your printer, because printers have memory and that text is on your printer...

Honestly, the greatest criminal minds are us nerds.

Good thing we're honest!

- Eric


Shannon O'Donnell said...

Holy cow, Raquel! This post was absolutely fascinating. You had me hooked with this one! :-)

Have a wonderful holiday, Raquel!