Advertisement
Motherboard

After Telcos Shut Off Bounty Hunters, Scammers Sell Fake 'Phone Pings'

After Motherboard’s investigation led to telcos stopping their sale of phone location data, apparent scammers are exploiting a void in the private investigator industry.

by Joseph Cox
May 1 2019, 2:39pm

Image: Artur Debat, Getty Images

Until recently, bounty hunters were queueing up to buy the location data of American cell phone users. But in a drying market, scammers have stepped in to take advantage of those desperate to get ahold of such information, Motherboard has learned.

In January, Motherboard revealed that bounty hunters were buying location data of AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile mobile phones. That data was sold by the telecommunications companies to a complex network of middleman companies, before ending up in the hands of bail bondsman firms. Motherboard paid a source $300 to locate a T-Mobile phone. After that investigation, the three telecom companies said they would stop selling location data to third parties all together. AT&T and T-Mobile told Motherboard they have already done so, and Sprint said it will stop the practice by the end of May.

In the wake of that cut-off, however, private investigators and bounty hunters are seemingly scamming one another by offering inaccurate phone location data for hundreds of dollars.

The news shows how sought after so-called ‘phone pings’ are in the world of bounty hunting and related industries.

Do you know anything else about phone pinging? You can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

Earlier this month, a private investigator emailed prospective clients with an offer to geo-locate phones, according to a copy of the email provided to Motherboard by Valerie McGilvrey, a skiptracer. A skiptracer is someone tasked with locating people or goods. McGilvrey was forwarded the email by a cellular forensic expert who in turn received it from a private investigator; Motherboard spoke to both the forensic expert and private investigator, corroborating that account.

“Problem: When you need to locate the elusive skip, debtor, missing persona and all of the databases you have accessed can’t help,” the email offering the phone location service, dated April 2, starts.

“Solution: If you have a working cellular number that the individual is using a True GPS Cellular Locate (Ping) may be your last and best hope of locating the elusive skip, debtor or missing person,” it continues. According to the email, the phone doesn’t need to be switched on; it only requires a working battery. No calls will be made to the phone or any text messages sent to it during the geolocation process, it continues.

The email advertisement noted the service costs $500 Monday through Friday, or $800 per ping at the weekends. When Motherboard posed as a potential customer and approached the seller via email, he provided a form to fill out to request the phone ping.

The pings through that service either aren’t real, or are at best highly inaccurate though, according to chat logs between two private investigators obtained by Motherboard. In those chats, one of the investigators says they gave the service $500 for a phone ping, presumably for a phone with an already known location. The returned result was an address in the wrong city, one of the investigators wrote, before adding that the person offering the service is lying about his capabilities.

One private investigator source told Motherboard the service was fake after seeing the results of the new alleged phone pings. “It was a load of bullocks it was!” they told Motherboard. Motherboard granted the source anonymity to speak more candidly about a sensitive underground practice.

In the email advertisement’s signature, the seller says he is a member of various organizations focused on private investigations and forensics. Motherboard verified he is part of at least one of these private investigator organizations by checking a list of members online.

Reached by phone, the phone ping seller said “I have no idea what you’re talking about” when asked about his allegedly fake phone pings, and hung up. He did not respond to follow-up requests for comment sent to two of his email addresses.

Subscribe to our new cybersecurity podcast, CYBER.