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How to Track a Cell Phone Number or Cell Phone Ring

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 11/8/2009

There are a lot of potential uses for tracking either a particular phone number or just whenever the phone rings, both malicious and well intentioned. But is this really possible? What about all those websites that claim to provide tracking services? This article explains.

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    Ethics Of Cell Phone Tracking

    Of course, cell phone tracking constitutes a major invasion of privacy, regardless of whether the intention is good or bad. Are you sure that this is the right course of action? Whether you're trying to figure out who that obnoxious prank caller is or attempting to track your child, it's a thorny web of should-I-or-should-I-nots. Consider whether this is really what you want to do before proceeding.

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    The Problem With Tracking Cell Phones

    How most cell phone tracking works is typically by triangulating the “pings" made by the cell phone to the nearest cell towers. GPS-enabled cell phones don't require cell towers, and may be located anywhere in the world by satellite triangulation in a similar manner. Cell phone companies are required by law in the United States to be able to locate cell phones to an accuracy of 100 feet, so that emergency vehicles will be able to locate the caller in need.

    Wait, so what's the problem? Well, cell phones are notoriously difficult to track, just inherent in the nature of the device: they're not tied down to a fixed address as with landlines, but rather can roam freely. So, there's no easy directory with a name and address associated with every phone number, like old telephone books, let alone some accessible method to track individual cell phones in real time - at least one that is available to civilians.

    Here's an overview of some of the possible solutions:

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    Tracking Websites

    So, what about all those free cell phone tracking websites that seem to be cropping up? The ones where you just have to type in the number in question? Can't they track the location of a mobile phone?

    Frankly, no. I have yet to stumble upon one of these websites that actually works. From sites like “Reverse Phone Detective" to “Track The Number", none of them provide accurate location information.

    While I personally have not investigated the fee websites, most accounts seem to point towards scams that are just out for your money—and won't tell you what you need to know.

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    Caller ID

    As you might imagine, caller ID is far more likely to work with landlines than cell phones. In fact, there really isn't much by way of caller ID for cell phones at all that provides anything beyond the number—and even that won't work for restricted numbers.

    Even the best caller ID software on your cell phone is not guaranteed to work all the time, never coming up with a name associated with the number that called you, let alone tracking the location of the call. Mostly, this is because disparate cell phone companies have not been able to work together to come up with a directory of cell phones, partially due to public outcry over invasion of privacy.

    So, that's one less piece of data that you're able to acquire from a cell phone number alone, let alone real time location!

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    Google It!

    If you're trying to figure out the general location of the owner of the number, as opposed to real time tracking, a good old (or not so old) fashioned Google search will probably do the trick. The person might have been un-paranoid (or unaware) enough to have it publicly posted on a social networking site, along with other potentially location-identifying information. Again, this is a small chance, and it won't work in real time.

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    Hacks

    Experienced hackers don't have any problems with any of this. It is perfectly possible to track a cell phone's location - after all, the cell phone companies do it - even if you just know the number and have had no physical access to it, without the user having any indication of this happening. While this hasn't reached epidemic levels, the possibility is there.

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    Cell Phone Tracking Software

    The only guaranteed way to really track a cell phone is through some sort of installed software on the device itself. This can be anything from a child tracking service, such as Verizon's Chaperone, to fun phone apps where you can track your friends' locations.

    However, this generally requires physical access to the phone, and consent of the user—both of which might be difficult to get, and probably defeats the point of what you're trying to do here.