The Burner Phone: Every Good Spy Has One, And So Should You

Andrew Davis

There I was: punched in the face, dragged to the ground, and mugged. It was a sunny spring afternoon on a busy street in Newark, New Jersey. I popped up from the pavement and gave chase to the thugs who had just ripped the iPhone out of my hand. As the three thieves disappeared into the crowd and then turned down a side street, it dawned on me: what do I do now?

Left with no backup plan

I’m a planner. I travel with an extra pair of underpants (you never know) and a spare set of batteries for my noise-canceling headphones. I like to think I’m prepared. But I’d never planned for life on the road without my smartphone. The daylight robbery left me standing on a bustling street corner in an unfamiliar city, watching my lifeline to the rest of the world disappear. I was furious.

I wanted to call the police and then my wife. I wanted to track down my phone and then lock up the bad guys. Instead, I was dumbfounded.

What do I do without my phone? Without my smartphone’s contact list, I don’t even know my wife’s office phone number!

Before I tell you about my evening driving around with a Newark police officer, let me tell you what I’ve learned since my mugging two years ago.

What would James Bond do?

James Bond would never find himself without a backup phone. In fact, I’m sure Bond has a burner phone. If you watched HBO’s “The Wire,” you know that “burner phones” are used by drug dealers and criminals to communicate. A burner phone is essentially a low-cost, disposable, prepaid phone. Burner phones don’t need an expensive carrier contract, and they’re usually not smart. But every good spy (and smart business traveler) needs a burner phone.

On my way to the airport the morning after the mugging, I asked my Uber driver to stop at the nearest convenience store. For $9.99 and a $20 prepaid phone card, I was up and running with a brand new burner phone. By the time I arrived at the airport, I’d pre-programmed my emergency numbers and texted the number to my wife. Never again would I be stranded without a substitute phone.

Here’s the thing: Ever since I bought that burner phone, I’ve realized that I use it far more than I ever expected.

Conference calls are easy

Entering a conference call PIN number when you’re dialing in from the same smartphone that contains the annoyingly lengthy call instructions is unbelievably hard. Instead of flipping between the phone app and my email or calendar app to find the call’s PIN number, I use my burner phone to call into conference calls. Meanwhile, I use my smartphone to have the call information easily available. I use my burner phone for conference calls every week, and I love it.

The call quality is remarkably good

My $9.99 burner phone never drops a call. Never. I’ve maintained conversations in elevators, tunnels, and parking garages. Remember how great the call quality of a landline was? That’s how I feel on my burner phone. I have no idea if there’s a technological advantage to using a “dumb device,” but my burner phone is a better phone than my iPhone. Hands down.

The benefits of a second number

Some days I receive hundreds of calls, dozens of texts, and alert after alert on my smartphone. But only a few very important people have my burner phone number. When my burner phone rings, I know it’s an emergency, and I always answer. In two years, I’ve received only a handful of inbound calls on my burner phone, and every single one has been an emergency. It’s so nice having a reliable secondary phone for those times when it matters.

The backup battery’s backup

Because my burner phone does nothing but make phone calls and send text messages, the battery lasts forever. I need to charge my smartphone multiple times a day, and if—no, when—my iPhone dies and my extra battery pack is dead, I still have a phone available. I charge my burner phone once a week, and it’s never off.

Those three thugs

Twenty minutes after my robbery, a police officer and I drove up and down Newark’s streets trying to track down the guys who stole my phone. Did we find them? No. I filed a report. We looked at a lineup of criminals they told me had been running the streets stealing phones, but I recognized no one. As the officer I’d spent three hours with shook my hand and apologized for not being able to locate my smartphone, he left me with one piece of parting advice:

“Hey, burner phones aren’t just for drug dealers and thieves,” he said. “If you’re going to travel the world by yourself, do yourself a favor, spend twenty bucks on a burner phone. You don’t need one until you need one.”

Man, was he right.

Next time I’m mugged in Newark, I won’t have to run four blocks to a hotel to call the cops. I’ll pull my burner phone from my backpack and call the police as I trail the criminals at a safe distance. I’m sure that’s not advisable, but I travel like Bond.

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Andrew Davis

About Andrew Davis

Andrew Davis’ 20-year career has taken him from local television to The Today Show. He’s worked for The Muppets in New York, written for Charles Kuralt and marketed for tiny start-ups as well as Fortune 500 brands. In 2001, Andrew Davis co-founded Tippingpoint Labs, where he changed the way publishers think and how brands market their products. His most recent book, Town INC hit shelves in September of 2015.