KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Missouri law enforcement officials became suspicious and alerted the FBI after a small number of men bought more than 100 prepaid, disposable cellphones from Wal-Mart stores in three cities in a 24-hour period.
Two men who bought roughly 60 phones last Saturday in Lebanon in southwestern Missouri were questioned by police and released.
At least one man seen on security footage playing a role in buying 32 cellphones Saturday at a Wal-Mart in Macon used his credit card, but left the store before police were summoned, Macon County sheriff’s Detective Curt Glover said Thursday.
Five or more men were reported to have bought an unspecified number of the phones Friday night in Columbia, police said.
Investigators viewed the purchases as curious because such phones, often called “burners,” can be bought and used anonymously, then discarded in an effort to avoid detection.
“There’s no violation of criminal law, as far as we’re aware,” Glover said. “They can go to a retail store and buy as many items as they wish. But when they buy a high number of one item most people wouldn’t buy, it’s cause for suspicion.”
An FBI spokeswoman in Kansas City, Missouri, Bridget Patton, said Thursday it is not uncommon for local law enforcement to contact that federal agency if they deem something suspicious.
Patton would not say if the FBI is formally investigating.
Prepaid cellphones, popular among international travelers and consumers with poor credit, also are commonly used by drug dealers and gang members because they don’t require personal data be given to the seller or service provider, masking the user’s identity.
Such phones also have been linked to suspected terror activity – including by a man accused of plotting to bomb Times Square in 2010 and using a prepaid phone to communicate with co-conspirators in Pakistan.
The FBI cautioned Thursday that it has seen similar mass purchases of prepaid cellphones at times but concluded those transactions were unrelated to terrorism concerns.
Police reports and interviews with investigators where the transactions took place did not disclose demographics about the buyers.
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman did not immediately return a message Thursday.