by Patrick Siewart
Increasingly, cellular records and their associated location information are being used in civil litigation, where previously they were considered to be a “law enforcement only” tool. But in the age when users carry at least one smartphone with them at all times, the location data with regard to calls / texts / data usage can be crucial evidence in certain cases. These include insurance fraud investigations, domestic / custody / cohabitation matters and personal injury cases.
As we’ve detailed in previous articles, there are five main US-based cellular carriers: Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile & U.S. Cellular. But what about those not on the list of five? What about Boost or Straight Talk or Virgin Mobile or Cricket or Tracfone or… the list goes on and on. Well, these carriers are all what are known as mobile virtual network operators or MVNOs. Check out our article detailing the record retention periods for each provider.
Essentially how MVNOs operate is by “leasing” the use of one of the five main cellular carriers, or sometimes more than one, to increase subscribership and allow of use of multiple devices on their plans, many of which are pre-paid or pay-as-you-go. Some MVNOs operate on strictly CDMA or GSM networks and some operate on both. Some MVNOs may be nationwide and some may be regional, as was the circumstance we dealt with recently regarding an MVNO that was based in the Tennessee Valley. The fact is, MVNOs far outnumber their host-networks in sheer numbers.
The first step is to determine which carrier the target of your investigation subscribes to, or which carrier owns the service for that number. For this, the simplest resource is the Hawk Analytics Support site, which is free with a registration. The support site also has articles, sample wording for process, best practice documentation and more.
When you identify the carrier you need to submit legal process to is an MVNO, one of several things may happen upon submission, depending on what type of information you’re seeking and with which MVNO the account you’re interested in is associated. For example, Boost or Virgin Mobile will refer you to Sprint’s legal compliance center for all types of requests, but Tracfone will not provide records for cell site listing and GPS location information. Those requests will be referred to the parent network. It really just depends on the MVNO you’re dealing with. Remember, even if the account is a pre-paid “drop/burner phone” and the subscriber didn’t have to give a name or ID when initiating the account, there can still be great investigative data contained in the records.
And remember, only Verizon Wireless stores standard text message (SMS) content for a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 10 days. After that, the information is purged.
As a quick reference, compiled a list of major MVNOs that you may run across in your investigations. All of the addresses for service of legal process to the respective MVNOs may be found on the ISP listing under the “Resources” tab on search.org.
Verizon Wireless-Only MVNOs
- Xfinity Mobile (Comcast)
- Affinity Cellular
- Spectrum Mobile
- Total Wireless
- Black Wireless
- Cricket Wireless
- EasyGO Wireless
- FreeUP Mobile
- Jolt Mobile
- Pure Talk USA
- Boost Mobile
- Chit Chat Mobile
- Kroger i-wireless
- Patriot Mobile
- Ready Mobile
- Tello US
- Scratch Wireless
- Virgin Mobile USA
- China Telecom Americas (CTExcel)
- GoSmart Mobile
- Liberty Wireless
- Mint Mobile
- Roam Mobility
- SeaWolf Wireless
- Simple Mobile
- Ultra Mobile
- Value Wireless
- Walmart Family Mobile
As previously stated, some MVNOs use multiple networks for their service. Which network is utilized can depend on where the device is purchased (i.e, Walmart, Target, etc.) and/or what type of device is selected for use. This naturally allows for the MVNO to cast a wider net and attract more customers, but it can make things confusing for investigators who are trying to figure out where to submit legal process. Here are some of the more common cross-carrier MVNOs:
- FreedomPop: AT&T, Sprint
- Consumer Cellular: AT&T, T-Mobile (GSM)
- Republic Wireless: Sprint, T-Mobile
- Flash Wireless: Sprint, Verizon
- Expo Mobile: Sprint, Verizon
- EcoMobile: Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
- Red Stick Wireless: Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
- Best Cellular: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
- Red Pocket Mobile: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
- Straight Talk: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon
- Net10 Wireless: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, US Cellular
- Boom Mobile: AT&T, Sprint, Verizon
- TracFone: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, US Cellular (feature phones only)
- Google Fi: Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular
A complete and up-to-date list of MVNOs, their networks and some features about the available plans can be found at this Wikipedia page.
Wrapping It Up
MVNOs are a fact of life when looking to use cellular location data conducting investigations. By arming yourself with the knowledge of which MVNO operates on which parent network and which information is available from whom, you can save valuable time, money and heartache. Happy hunting!
About The Author
Patrick Siewert is the Principal Consultant of Pro Digital Forensic Consulting, based in Richmond, Virginia. In 15 years of law enforcement, he investigated hundreds of high-tech crimes, incorporating digital forensics into the investigations, and was responsible for investigating some of the highest jury and plea bargain child exploitation investigations in Virginia court history. Patrick is a graduate of SCERS, BCERT, the Reid School of Interview & Interrogation and multiple online investigation schools (among others). He is a Cellebrite Certified Operator and Physical Analyst as well as certified in cellular call detail analysis and mapping. He continues to hone his digital forensic expertise in the private sector while growing his consulting & investigation business marketed toward litigators, professional investigators and corporations, while keeping in touch with the public safety community as a Law Enforcement Instructor.