Chances are that you associate burner phone numbers with spy dramas and popular shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad, but these secondary phone lines are just as popular with everyday folks.
A separate phone number provides relative anonymity, can shield you from unwanted calls and is cheap — sometimes even free. Plus, the number can be replaced at will.
Think about it this way: The same burner numbers that scammers use to shield themselves from detection also can protect you. You can keep your personal phone number and prevent many unwanted calls.
In 2021, 97 percent of U.S. adults owned a cellphone, according to a Pew Research Center study. The Federal Communications Commission says unwanted calls are its top complaint from consumers.
Customers said they paid an average of $143 a month in 2022 for cellphone service from the major wireless carriers, according to a survey from J.D. Power, a market research firm based in Troy, Michigan. Those who chose mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), generally prepaid carriers that operate on national cellular networks, said they paid an average of $85.
“Having a second phone number just to give out to services is a perfectly valid way to funnel all those possible sales calls or service calls into a phone line which isn’t something your friends and relatives know,” says Bill Budington, senior staff technologist at Electronic Frontier Foundation. The nonprofit that defends civil liberties and privacy on the internet is based in San Francisco.
Let’s say you’re a regular Facebook Marketplace buyer or seller and prefer not to share your identity, you have a side job driving for Uber and need a separate line, or you want an alternative phone number for family and friends without getting constant spam or robocalls.
In 2022, scammers placed 50.3 billion robocalls, down slightly from 50.5 billion in 2021, according to figures from YouMail, a robocall blocking company based in Irvine, California. YouMail projected the number based on information from users of its free app. January 2023 had 4.5 billion robocalls, which the company said was an average of almost 14 calls per person.
For this reason alone, having an alternative phone number is smart. You can also take the number with you wherever you live or set up a number regardless of area code.
Why not impress your friends with a balmy Beverly Hills 310 area code while living in snowy Maine? And online dating can be a lot safer if you stay incognito using a separate phone line.
Free services with caveats
Many apps offer burner numbers that don’t require the purchase of a throwaway phone. Each uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) that converts your voice into a digital file, allowing you to make and receive calls over the internet.
Services are available for just about everyone looking to conceal their identity. All the apps below are available for both Android and Apple smartphones.
Google Voice. You can place and receive calls and texts free using a U.S.-based telephone number, chosen from available numbers in selected area codes. You’ll need a Google account, such as a Gmail address, to get started. Google Voice calls and texts are free with personal Google Voice accounts in the U.S. and Canada.
If you make an international call, you’ll be charged standard international rates. And if you use Google Voice to make a call outside the U.S., you’ll be charged roaming fees.
A key feature of Google Voice is voicemail transcription, so you can read the text of a voicemail via the app or have it sent to your email. You can forward your calls and screen them with a prerecorded reply.