KY3: The FBI is aware of reports of men visiting Walmart stores in several cities in Missouri and purchasing or trying to purchase large quantities of cellular telephones.  An FBI spokeswoman won’t say exactly how much its agents are delving into the purchases.   Some of the cities where the purchases and attempted purchases are reported by Ava police say a man of Middle Eastern background bought a large number of cellular telephones at the Walmart store in Ava about 6:15 a.m. last Saturday. Police questioned the man, who was from Michigan, and he told them that he is a businessman. Police found no reason to detain him.

That purchase was about three hours after two men bought 60 cell phones at the Walmart store in Lebanon.  Officers there questioned the men, at least one of whom said he is from Michigan, according to Ava police.  Laclede County Sheriff Wayne Merritt said officers also found no reason to detain the cell phone buyers in Lebanon.

An Ava Police Department spokeswoman said her department’s officers also have heard of a similar purchase of a large number of cell phones at a Walmart store in Columbia.  She said it’s possible that all three purchases are related and by the same men.

A TV station in Kansas City reported similar purchases or attempted purchases in Macon and Jefferson City.  A TV station in Jefferson City reported similar purchases at stores in Jackson and Cape Girardeau, as well as other cities.

After an earlier version of this story was posted on Thursday afternoon, the Marshfield police chief called to say that a man who gave a Michigan address made a similar purchase of a 19 prepaid cell phones in his city in October.  The chief said that man gave a false tax exempt waiver form to the store and bought the phones without sales taxes.

KY3 reporters have repeatedly called Walmart headquarters to try to find out if Walmart has a policy that limits the number of cell phones that one person can buy at a time, or has recently changed its policy.  Walmart representatives have not returned those calls. On Thursday, a KSPR reporter went to the Walmart store on South Campbell Avenue in Springfield and tried to buy six cell phones and was told the limit is two; the store employees were not told he is a reporter.

Law enforcement officers say purchasing cellphones in bulk is done for any number of uses, including to give as gifts or to resell for profit.  Law enforcement agencies report cell phones are also potential tools in the hands of terrorists. The devices can be used to communicate and they’re difficult to trace if they’re prepaid phones; they can also be used as detonators for bombs.

Marco Denis, owner of First Impressions Wireless says, “Especially with everything that’s going on right now, and we know what the cell phone is capable of doing, because of that, it looks a little bit suspicious to us also.”

Denis says he would never sell sixty phones at once.  “We’ve had people come in asking for 10 phones or 15 phones, and we usually ask them questions, why do you need that many phones?  And if they cannot give us an answer, we usually do not sell it to them,” Denis says.

He says he buys from a master dealer, not from individuals, but people do try.  “I said hey, we would love to purchase from you, but we want to call the cops and make sure those phones are not stolen, and we want to check them out, and the guy run from the store as fast as he could!” Denis says.

At Choose Your Own Wireless, general manger Shannon Flood says large quantity cell phone purchases are not necessarily suspect.  “I see a lot of people that have a lot of fear out there, and I wanted to just try to let people know that there actually is a legitimate reason as well,” says Flood.

He believes the purchasers could be buying phones to send or sell to foreign countries, sell to stores like his, or sell online.  “These people will purchase the phones while they’re on sale, and when the sale’s overwith, they’ll resell them at manufacturer’s retail cost online,” says Flood.

We don’t know what phones were purchased at the WalMarts or how much they cost.  But to illustrate Shannon’s point, we found a phone on sale at Walmart.com for less than five dollars.  The same phone is being sold by an E-bay seller who has more than ten of them for about 20 dollars each.

—-

News release from Ava Police Department:

“On 12-05-2015 at approximately 0623 in the morning, the Ava Police Department received a report of a Middle Eastern male subject who had purchased a large amount of cell phones from Wal-Mart and had left a cell phone in the restroom. Officers responded and secured the phone.

“While speaking with Wal-Mart employees the subject who left the phone returned to the store to get it. Officers spoke with the male subject who was of Middle Eastern decent and asked for identification which was provided. After speaking with the subject, officers did not have any legal reason to detain him, so they allowed him to leave.

“Officers did contact the Missouri Highway Patrol Intelligence Unit and advised them of the situation and also contacted other local Wal-Marts in the surrounding areas to be on the lookout for the subject. After speaking with employees at the Lebanon Wal-Mart, officers were advised the subject had already purchased 59 cell phones from that store earlier. Officers contacted the Lebanon Police Department and were advised they had already contacted the FBI and when they spoke to them again, they would have them contact the Ava Police Department as well.

“As always if anyone hears or sees something suspicious contact local authorities immediately. It does not hurt to have it checked out and you can remain anonymous.”