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Investigators traced terror suspect through his disposable cell phone

Officials ran the phone number through a 'number of databases' to help identify Shahzad, reports say

May 4, 2010 01:01 PM ET

Computerworld - Investigators used a telephone number from a disposable cell phone to help locate the Pakistani-American man suspected in the Times Square car bomb attempt, according to reports.

Politico.com and other news outlets reported that an unnamed senior official said the suspect used a disposable phone to arrange the purchase of the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder left Saturday packed with bombs in Times Square.

Investigators "were able to basically get one phone number and by running it through a number of databases, figure out who they thought the guy was," the official told Politico. A spokesman at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York and two spokesmen for the New York office of the FBI said they could not confirm that report.

The suspect, Faisal Shahzad, was arrested about 11:45 p.m. Monday at John F. Kennedy International Airport, while preparing to board a flight to Dubai, according to a joint statement from the FBI, the New York City Police Department and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

Shahzad, 30, is a U.S. citizen born in Pakistan. He was scheduled to appear late Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan to be presented for formal charges, the FBI's statement said.

Several reports said that e-mails used in the purchase of the Pathfinder had led investigators to make an arrest. But more recent reports based on FBI sources said the disposable cell phone had apparently been used by Shahzad to arrange the purchase of the vehicle, and investigators were able to obtain that phone number and connect it to his name.

The Pathfinder's vehicle identification number had been removed from the dashboard, police discovered after the bombs inside failed to detonate. But a VIN from the bottom of the engine block was discovered, leading police to the registered owner in Connecticut, who had sold the vehicle for $1,800 in cash three weeks ago, with no exchange of paperwork, CNN.com and other sources reported, citing unnamed officials in the investigation.

Prior to the exchange of cash, cell phone calls were made to arrange the purchase, and the cell phone number allegedly used by Shahzad was obtained from the daughter of the Pathfinder's owner, who made the sale after the vehicle was advertised on Craigslist, the Politico report said.

Officials didn't tell Politico how they found Shahzad's name from the disposable cell phone, which was not in his possession at the time of the arrest. When a cell phone is purchased, even a disposable one, a user's name is usually connected in a database to a phone number that was assigned to a wireless carrier. The carrier would keep that database, as well as many authorized cell phone sellers.

A phone could be stolen and used with that assigned number by a third party, so it isn't clear how investigators knew that Shahzad purchased the vehicle or that he equipped it with a bomb and parked it in Times Square.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at Twitter @matthamblen or subscribe to Hamblen RSSMatt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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