Senators push for tracking of pre-paid cellphones

New York Senator Chuck Schumer has already taken aim at texting while driving, and it looks like he's now set his sights on pre-paid cellphones, which he says can also be dangerous -- when in the wrong hands, at least. To that end, he and Republican co-sponsor John Cornyn of Texas have introduced legislation that would give authorities the ability to identify the owners of pre-paid cellphones, which they say is long overdue "because for years, terrorists, drug kingpins and gang members have stayed one step ahead of the law by using prepaid phones that are hard to trace." That new tracking ability would also consequently place some new requirements on cellphone carriers and people buying the phones -- specifically, anyone buying a pre-paid cellphone would be required to present identification before buying a phone, and cellphone carriers would have to keep that information on file for 18 months after the phone has been deactivated. Of course, the legislation still has a ways to go before it becomes law, but Schumer says it at least has a good chance of winning support from the Obama administration. Head on past the break for the complete press release.

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Unlike Regular Cell Phones or Landlines, Prepaid Phones Can Be Activated Without a Contract or Credit Check; Phone Companies Have No Idea Who User Is, and Neither Does Law Enforcement

Long Relied On By Gangs and Drug Kingpins, Hard-To-Trace Devices Are Staple For Terrorists, Too; 9/11 Hijackers Used Prepaid Phones To Carry Out Their Plots In Secret

Shahzad Was Caught Thanks To Random Break, But Usually Prepaid Phones Are Dead End For Authorities

WASHINGTON, DC-U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and John Cornyn (R-TX) announced first-of-its-kind federal legislation Wednesday that would help stop terrorists like the Times Square bomber from keeping their identities hidden from law enforcement by using prepaid cell phones to plot and coordinate their attacks. Under the new proposal, buyers of prepaid cell phones would be required to present identification at the point of sale, and phone companies would have to keep the buyers' information on file as they already do with users of landline phones and subscription-based cell phones.

"This proposal is overdue because for years, terrorists, drug kingpins and gang members have stayed one step ahead of the law by using prepaid phones that are hard to trace. We caught a break in catching the Times Square terrorist, but usually a prepaid cell phone is a dead end for law enforcement. There's no reason why it should still be this easy for terror plotters to cover their tracks," Schumer said.

"Weeks ago, we came alarmingly close to a devastating terrorist attack in Times Square. A major lesson we've learned from the investigation and arrest of Faisal Shahzad is that we must require individuals purchasing a pre-paid cell phone in this country to provide verified indentifying information. While most Americans use pre-paid mobile devices lawfully, the anonymous nature of these devices gives too much cover to individuals looking to use them for deviant, dangerous means. It would be foolish to stand idly by while the risk remains that another terrorist or criminal could purchase a pre-paid phone leaving no paper trail. I was pleased to work with Sen. Schumer on this important legislation, which sends a clear message that those who purchase pre-paid mobile devices will no longer remain anonymous," Cornyn said.

Although there are many legitimate users of prepaid cell phones, they have also become the communication device of choice for terrorists, drug lords and gang members interested in masking their identities. Since they can purchased and activated without signing a contract or undergoing a credit check, prepaid cell phones provide virtual anonymity.

Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old suspect in the Times Square terror plot, used a prepaid cell phone to arrange the purchase of the Nissan Pathfinder that he attempted to turn into a car bomb. He also used the phone to make a series of calls to Pakistan in the days leading up to the attack. Federal authorities were later able to track down Shahzad, but only thanks to a break: a number listed in the phone's call log matched one provided to U.S. Customs officials when Shahzad reentered the U.S. from Pakistan months earlier. But for that stroke of luck, authorities might never have been able to match the phone number provided by the seller of the Pathfinder to Shahzad.

It is not new for terrorists to rely on prepaid cell phones. The 9/11 hijackers used them to communicate in the months prior to their attack. In a speech in 2002, FBI Director Robert Mueller cited the plotters' use of the devices to show that they "managed to exploit loopholes and vulnerabilities in our systems, to stay out of sight, and to not let anyone know what they were up to beyond a very closed circle."

Prepaid cell phones have also been used as detonation devices for bombs, as was the case in the attack on a Madrid train that killed 191 people in Spain in 2004.

In 2006, a wave of suspicious bulk purchases of prepaid cell phones led the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to issue a nationwide bulletin to local police calling attention to the trend and pointing out the potential links to terrorist activity. Stores such as Wal-Mart implemented policies limiting how many prepaid devices customers could purchase in a single visit.

In addition to terrorism cases, prepaid phones have long been used by other types of criminals, like drug sellers, mob figures and gang leaders. In 2009, they were even used by hedge fund managers and Wall Street executives implicated in the largest insider trading bust in U.S. history. In court papers, federal prosecutors detailed how traders from the Galleon Group hedge fund communicated with other executives through prepaid phones in order to try to evade potential wiretaps. In one instance, one suspect is described as having chewed the Subscriber Identity Module, or SIM card, until it snapped in half in order to destroy possible evidence.

Countries such as Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, and Thailand already require registration of prepaid cell phone users due mainly to their use by terrorists.

In the U.S., laws requiring registration of prepaid cell phone users have been proposed in states including Texas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Georgia and South Carolina. But in light of the increased reliance of terrorists on the devices, Schumer and Cornyn said Wednesday it was time for a federal response.