Jeremy, a sheriff’s deputy in West Virginia, started using Burner to get around budget shortfalls. "I currently work patrol division so I come in contact with different civilians every day," he explained. "My department does not issue cellular phones to patrol deputies so I use the app to be able to give people a direct contact without compromising the privacy of my personal number."
The rise of the contract economy, with people renting their apartment on Airbnb and driving their personal car for Lyft or Uber, has also driven demand for a personal and professional phone number. "Users are seeing the need for more than one phone number: one personal and one public," says Cohn. "We see a lot of people who are using Burner as a substitute for carrying two devices, because it’s cheaper and more flexible."
"A SUBSTITUTE FOR CARRYING TWO DEVICES, BECAUSE IT’S CHEAPER AND MORE FLEXIBLE."
"Most of the ‘version one virtual number companies’ were part of an era of web apps that were dying, right on the cusp of the mobile revolution," says Cohn. The Burner experience is quite different. Unlike the multistep process of creating a Gmail account and then a Google voice number, or logging onto a web app to augment a phone number, Burner users can create and delete new phone numbers almost instantly from within a mobile app. The company has a stockpile of unused numbers, which they can assign and activate to users on demand. Calls are routed through their servers and connect with the telephone network thanks to APIs from companies like Bandwith.com and Twilio.
The explosion of mobile devices has also altered people’s needs. When Grand Central and Google Voice were formed, most people had a cell phone, work phone, and landline at home. The pain point was connecting all those phones to a single number. Today, many people have a single smartphone for those three uses. "What people are trying to solve for now is, how can I have one device, but multiple numbers," argues Cohn.
"TO BE HONEST, I WAS IN AN OFF-AGAIN-ON-AGAIN RELATIONSHIP WITH A SOMEWHAT CRAZY GIRL."
"It worked really well," says Jeffrey. "I actually started using it for other things, like giving my students a way to stay in touch without having to worry about them crank calling me or there being some idea of us having a personal relationship that was inappropriate."
This requires, of course, that you know the inbound number, something which might not always be the case. If you’re making a spur of the moment decision to give your number to a stranger at a bar or a salesman you just met, creating a unique Burner number will let you know for sure who is calling. In a bit of aggressive marketing, Burner created this infographic, laying out exactly how complex it is to send a single picture message using Google Voice.
Burner is available on iOS and Android, and comes with a free trial that lasts seven days, 20 minutes, or 60 messages. You can get unlimited voice minutes and texts in the area code of the user's choice for 8 credits, which costs from about $4 to $4.99, depending on whether you buy credits in bulk. If you want to pay as you go, the standard Burner is 30 days / 50 minutes / 150 texts for 5 credits.). In our testing, it took between 10 and 15 seconds to set up a new number.
Anonymous and ephemeral chat apps have been garnering a lot of press and some massive valuations, while Burner has largely flown under the radar. Cohn, commenting on the hype surrounding services like Snapchat, YikYak, and Whisper, believes Burner fits into the same evolution. But while consumers have a bevy of options for messaging, however, almost all have just one number they regularly use. "The phone number as most people know it today is fundamentally broken," says Cohn. "It’s not smart enough, social enough, and it’s definitely not privacy-aware enough."