Why the FBI was notified about cell phones bought in Missouri

Cellphones purchased in bulk raised alarm in Missouri when residents concerned about terrorist threats reported the Wal-Mart purchases to law enforcement and the FBI.

Danny Johnston/AP
Shoppers check out at a Wal-Mart Supercenter store in Springdale, Ark. The FBI was notified after a several purchases of pre-paid cell phones at various Wal-Mart stores concerned residents.

Who buys 59 pre-paid cell phones in a single shopping trip?

Several bulk purchases of cell phones in Missouri caused concern among Americans on alert for signs of terrorist plots.

The alarm began when two immigrants bought 59 cell phones at once from a Wal-Mart in Lebanon, Mo. on Dec. 5. Employees also notified police when someone bought 50 cell phones in Columbia, Mo., and news reports began stacking up, with a total of five cities in Missouri reporting unusual sales of pre-paid cell phones along with thefts of propane tanks in Kansas City, the Associated Press reported.

Law enforcement officials in Missouri notified the FBI, which investigated the cell phone purchases and left the propane tanks to local authorities, FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton told the Kansas City Star.

"You have local law enforcement acting out of an abundance of caution,” Patton said. "We have seen similar purchases of bulk cellphones in the past, and it has been concluded that these transactions were unrelated to terrorism."

Some law enforcement said such purchases occur intermittently as people buy the cell phones in bulk and sell them off.

"I do not feel there’s an immediate threat to the community," said Macon County Sheriff Sgt. Curt Glover, according to the Kansas City Star. "This has been going on for the last 15 years."

Pre-paid cell phones are often called "burners" because people can use and then discard them anonymously. Immigrants and people without a stable income or a consistent residence often find them useful, the AP reported. Drug dealers are another possibility.

But social media users quickly linked the incident to imminent terrorism, and the rumor-investigating website Snopes published an article to fact-check the issue.

The rumors and concerns may be another indication of heighten American fears about terrorism.

In June, 49 percent of Americans reported they were "very" or at least "somewhat worried" that they or a family member would become a victim of terrorism, according to a Gallup poll.

A new Gallup poll released this week shows confidence in the US government to protect citizens from terrorism is down 12 percentage points since June, and is now 33 points lower than the 88 percent who said they had a "great deal" or "fair amount" of confidence shortly after 9/11.

A witness to the Missouri incidents said he became suspicious when he saw the men pay with cash.

"Right then and there I knew there was not something adding up about this," he told ABC 17 News. "Who's going to order 50 phones for Christmas? Who does that?"

Americans have not worried about terrorism this much since the month after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when 59 percent expressed concern. 

While Americans are on alert, retired FBI agent Jeff Lanza told the Kansas City Star, that these bulk cell phone purchases are not likely to involve terrorists.

"If you were planning to use those in a terrorist act, you wouldn’t be buying in bulk and attracting attention to yourself,” he told the Kansas City Star. “It would be a stupid way to start buying things to be used as bomb detonators because the first thing people do is call the police."

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