The Trafficking Process

Cell phone trafficking operations are comprised of a complex group of runners, middlemen, phone hackers, resellers, counterfeiters and exporters who buy or steal large quantities of prepaid wireless phones in bulk from retail stores. They unlock, hack, and resell those phones to consumers who don’t know they’re buying a trafficked phone. Traffickers often make a hefty profit by stealing subsidies, discounts, and other financial incentives that are meant to make new phones affordable for legitimate consumers. Cell phone trafficking is a widespread epidemic that harms unsuspecting consumers, street crime, armed robberies, and other illegal activities used to obtain phones put everyone at risk. Plus, trafficking costs U.S. wireless providers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Understanding how traffickers operate can help you stop suspicious activity in its tracks.


Runners Buy or Steal Phones in Bulk

Some cell phone trafficking schemes begin with groups of “runners” who buy prepaid bulk iPhones, Androids, and other phone models at discounts from retailers and wireless providers. Highly trafficked cell phones include models by Apple, Samsung, Huawei, LG, Alcatel, ZTE and others. Because authorized prepaid wireless retailers limit the number of phones that can be bought at one time, these runners head from store to store until they can get enough phones to resell in bulk to middlemen. Traffickers sometimes hire others (referred to as “mules”) to buy multiple phones on their behalf for a small fee. Traffickers often resort to armed robbery, burglary, identity theft, and other illegal and fraudulent activity to get their hands on phones.


Middlemen Reflash Cell Phones

Phone resellers or “middlemen” buy phones in bulk from runners and other traffickers, and often remove cell phones from their packaging and unlock, reflash or jailbreak phones to be resold to consumers. Resellers do this by hacking into each phone’s proprietary software, or by “social engineering” or bribing employees from wireless service providers or manufacturers to provide unlock codes. These reflashing or unlocking processes allow the cell phones to operate on most wireless networks around the world.


Counterfeit Packaging

Resellers frequently repackage the unlocked or reflashed cell phones in counterfeit packaging to look like brand new OEM phones. Repackaged cell phones are often placed in counterfeit packaging with a charger, counterfeit batteries, instruction manuals, fake phone warranties, and other materials using the language and electrical standards typically found in newly-packaged phones in the destination country.


Unsuspecting Consumers Buy Phones

Unsuspecting consumers buy the hacked, unlocked, and reflashed cell phones without a clue that they are actually being sold inferior products with fake warranties disguised in counterfeit cell phone packaging to look like brand new phones. That is, until they later find that their warranties are no good, and the cell phones don’t work as intended.

Report Suspicious Activity

If you are asked to take part in cell phone trafficking, or see or suspect someone buying, unlocking, hacking, or reselling cell phones in bulk quantities, or unlocking or reselling them, you can warn them TracFone will take legal action.

You can also report cell phone traffickers anonymously through TracFone's toll free hotline or by email: