August 24, 2006

Are Terrorists Shopping in Memphis Stores?

Are terrorists shopping in Memphis? In June the Scotland County Sheriff’s Department contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation with just such a tip.

Sheriff Wayne Winn indicated that the FBI was notified after his department learned of a suspicious purchase at the Pamida store in Memphis.

The incident occurred on June 23 when a woman, described by the store clerk, as of Asian decent, purchased a large number of prepaid cellular phones. The clerk later reported the suspicious sale to the sheriff’s department, which in turn notified federal investigators.

“We were contacted by the store clerk regarding this suspicious transaction that involved a large amount of cash and basically the store’s entire stock of prepaid phones,” said Deputy Brian Whitney.

Nearly two months later, similar purchases were making national news. A trio of Texas men of Lebanese decent were arrested after being found in possession of approximately 1,000 prepaid cellular phones.

The men initially faced terrorism charges, but have since seen the criminal allegations lessened to fraud and money laundering as investigators are backing off the terrorism angle.

It was this national news coverage that sparked a second local investigation. In the second week of August the Sheriff’s Department and the Memphis Police Department were contacted regarding two men trying to purchase phones at Dollar General in Memphis.

Deputy Whitney indicated Dollar General limits the purchase amounts on prepaid phones, allowing just two units per customer.

In this instance, the clerk indicated the two buyers appeared to be of middle-eastern origin and were in possession of what appeared to be large amounts of cash.

Both cases were investigated and the appropriate reports were turned over to the FBI office in St. Louis.

Since the initial national reports of terrorism ties with such suspicious purchases, many public reports are indicating that prepaid cellular phones are being bought nationwide and then resold in foreign markets where they are put to uses not intended by the manufacturers. Re-sellers are cashing in on the market, buying the devices like the ones produced by TracFone and transporting them to different markets for illegal resale. The prepaid phones are sold below cost by retail stores in an effort to create customers of the manufacturer’s cellular phone services that sell additional minutes of air time to phone owners.

Whitney stated in both local instances, the buyers declined to purchase minutes that would have actually allowed the phones to be activated for use in making or receiving calls.

While concerns still exist regarding connections between terrorism and the nearly-untraceable cellular phones, investigators appear now to be focusing more on the black market that exists for the cheap phones, which can be stripped down and programmed with different software that allows them to be used on different phone services.

“These phones are not illegal and there is no law limiting the numbers that can be bought or sold,” Whitney said. “We are still going to follow up on any leads or reports that might involve national security and continue to work with federal authorities when these types of issues arise.”

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