'Burner' phones aren't just for criminals. Here's why you should have one

Marc Saltzman, Special to USA TODAY

Despite all the buzz surrounding the new iPhones set to debut on Sept. 10, many are considering something on the other end of the spectrum: a cheap, disposable, and prepaid mobile phone.

OK, so these “burner phones,” as they’re often called, may be an addendum to your pricey smartphone rather than a replacement for it, but these low-cost devices have some desirable benefits.

And no, you don’t need to be up to nefarious dealings to consider a burner phone – or a burner app on your existing phone, which gives you a secondary line.

Here’s why.

Smartphones from big brand names like Samsung could cost well under $100 – which might be fine for a prepaid solution or “burner” phone.

Maintains your privacy

While you might think a “burner phone” is something only a criminal may use to avoid being tracked by authorities, law-abiding citizens may also appreciate the privacy awarded by a burner phone.

For example, you might not want to use your main phone number if you’re posting items on Craigslist or another classifieds site. After all, you’re opening up the possibility of unwanted calls or texts from strangers on your personal line. Instead, when the transactions are completed, you can simply stop using (or “burn”) the temporary phone.

Burner phones are also desirable to those who use dating apps, as you might not want to give out your primary number to someone you don’t end up with. Sure, you can block someone on your main phone, but they could still contact you from another number.

Burner phones can be bought with cash and with no contract, plus providers that sell these devices don’t track personal data. Anonymity isn’t fully guaranteed, however, as burner phones can still be located over a cellular network by the temporary phone number or logged whenever you call someone else’s phone via their carrier.

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Yes, flip phones are just fine as an emergency device to keep in a glove box, on a pay-as-you-go plan.

Other advantages

Aside from privacy, there are other reasons you might consider a burner phone:

For emergencies: Thanks to an FCC mandate, every mobile phone must be able to dial 9-1-1 – even if you aren’t signed up with a carrier. Heck, you don’t even need a SIM card in the phone, for that matter. And so, a practical application for a cheap burner phone is to keep it for emergency purposes only. Toss it into your glove box and you’ll know it’s there, just in case.

Back-up phone: While some burner phones have some advanced features, most are no-frills devices used for calls or texts only. Because most these devices don’t have big screens and advanced radios like 4G/LTE and GPS, they likely boast much longer battery life than a premium smartphone. This could be ideal for travelers, perhaps, or at least as a back-up phone if your main device’s battery peters out. Or maybe you want to toss one into a child’s backpack to use on the way home from school in an emergency.

Low cost: Price is a good motivator, too. Rather than spend well over $1,000 for the latest iOS or premium Android device, prepaid burner phones could be as low as $25 for the Total Wireless Alcatel MyFlip 4G Prepaid Flip Phone. If you want a cheap prepaid smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy Express Prime 3 is as low as $65.

Pro tip: While your burner phone doesn’t have access to data, many social networks like Twitter and Facebook have an SMS option, so you can still be notified to get updates via text message.

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Instead of a burner phone, you might want a secondary phone number for calls and texts. The free TextNow lets you choose the area (if available) and the company also sells inexpensive phones and plans.

There’s an app for that

Those who like the idea of a burner phone but aren’t quite ready to pick one up might consider an app like TextNow (iOS and Android), which lets you select the area code you’d like a free phone number from, for your existing smartphone – or even a tablet or Windows laptop.

After all, you might want a secondary number for work, personal use, or for classifieds, shopping, dating, and so on.

If you use the service over Wi-Fi, you can call and text for free.

Along with the app, TextNow also offers inexpensive phones and cellular plans that leverage the Sprint network (starting at $9.99/month). All plans have no contract and you may cancel your plan whenever you like, without any penalty or additional charges.

As the name suggests, the Burner app gives you a secondary number for your existing smartphone (iPhone or Android), which you may want to use for online classifieds, online dating and online shopping.

Another good app is, in fact, called Burner. It, too, allows you to create multiple numbers on your main smartphone. Also available at the App Store and Google Play, Burner is free to download and free to try. Additional time and numbers are available by in-app purchase (from $1.99) or a subscription for $4.99/month, which enables one burner line with unlimited calls, texts, and picture messages for one month. Be aware, however, phone calls use up your regular mobile phone minutes.

Readers, have you ever used a burner phone? Tell us in the Comments section or on social media.

Follow Marc on Twitter: @marc_saltzman. Email him or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast at www.marcsaltzman.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Got iPhone or Android? Here's why you may need a burner phone, too