CLAIM

Middle Eastern men purchased dozens of burner cell phones at Walmarts in and around Lebanon, Missouri (ostensibly to carry out terror attacks); at the same time, multiple stores reported propane tank thefts. See Example( s )

EXAMPLES
Collected via Twitter and Facebook, December 2015

Ones casualities start coming in due to your blatant disregard and obvious knowing of those Muslim extremists buying those burner phones, we the people will blame you. There was more than enough reasonable suspicion to arrest those foreigners on a probable threat of terrorism. THey are not US citizens, they don't need due process like AMericans. You're just as bad as the UK police and too intimidated to do a damn thing about it! Now they are gone....and we have NO IDEA what they are planning, whether its suicide bombing or somethng else. THANKS, YOU GUYS DID A BANGUP JOB!!! You're idiots! ____________________________________________________________________________________ Published on Dec 11, 2015 www.undergroundworldnews.com The FBI has launched an investigation after 150 prepaid mobile phones were bought from local Walmarts in Missouri. This comes after the theft of dozens of propane tanks in the area. The large number of purchases took place at six Missouri Walmarts at least, authorities say, according to KRCG13.
MOSTLY FALSE

RATING

MOSTLY FALSE

WHAT'S TRUE

Police investigated reports of large cell phone purchases in several Missouri Walmarts; the county sheriff's office later confirmed that the reports were unrelated to terrorism.

WHAT'S FALSE

Law enforcement has linked the cell phone purchases or stolen propane tanks to each other and/or terrorists.

ORIGIN

On or around 5 December 2015, rumors began circulating on social media regarding a large purchase of pre-paid cell phones at a Walmart in Lebanon, Missouri, which later included similar suspicious purchases at other Walmarts in the area.

On 9 December 2015, mid-Missouri station KMIZ published an article reporting that law enforcement authorities in at least four Missouri cities had received reports of suspicious phone purchases at area WalMart stores:

[S]omeone tried to buy a suspicious number of phones at Wal-Mart East in Jefferson City. The latest report is in addition to three other reports of similar incidents in Columbia, Macon and Lebanon. Authorities in all four cities said they had contacted FBI agents. However, the FBI only confirmed it is investigating three of those reports.

The reports described by KMIZ were attributed to Walmart employees and an eyewitness who wished to remain anonymous, and they described two men who had purchased 60 phones at the Lebanon WalMart:

[We] talked to a witness who didn’t want to be identified said the men paid with cash.

“Right then and there I knew there was not something adding up about this. It’s not right, it doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Who’s going to order 50 phones for Christmas? Who does that?”

The man who saw the phones being purchased in Columbia said he instantly thought the men were up to no good.

“That’s the first thing that ran through my mind that something bad could happen,” he said. “You know, they could be using these phones for terrorist acts.”

We contacted the Lebanon Police Department to gather additional information, but the individual with whom we spoke directed us to the FBI’s local field office for more information. A police report [PDF] available on the jurisdiction’s web site indicated that police were summoned to the Lebanon Walmart in the early hours of 5 December 2015. The report didn’t indicate who made the report (whether it was a bystander or employee), what the suspicious activity in question was (aside from the purchase of unspecified electronics), nor that the incident was viewed as suspicious by the officer:

On Saturday December 5, 2015 at approximately 0352 hours I was dispatched to 1800 S. Jefferson in reference to suspicious activity regarding electronics purchasing. Upon my arrival, I made contact with two male subjects that were pointed out by store employees. Upon speaking the two males, it was determined that there was no further reason to detain the subjects and they were allowed to leave.

Nothing further at this time.

Social media users excoriated local law enforcement agents for not detaining the men, but the police report explicitly stated that there was no lawful reason to do so.

Altogether, five similar incidents were reported at WalMart stores in Columbia, Jefferson City, Macon, Jackson, and Lebanon. Missouri law enforcement officials alerted the FBI after a small number of men bought more than 100 pre-paid cellphones from WalMart stores in three different cities over a 24-hour period.

Macon County sheriff’s Detective Curt Glover said that although law enforcement were called to investigate the purchases, no arrests were made in connection with them because no laws had been broken:

“There’s no violation of criminal law, as far as we’re aware,” Glover said. “They can go to a retail store and buy as many items as they wish. But when they buy a high number of one item most people wouldn’t buy, it’s cause for suspicion.”

An FBI spokeswoman in Kansas City, Missouri, Bridget Patton, said it is not uncommon for local law enforcement to contact that federal agency if they deem something suspicious. Patton would not say if the FBI is formally investigating.

Prepaid cellphones, popular among international travelers and consumers with poor credit, also are commonly used by drug dealers and gang members because they don’t require personal data be given to the seller or service provider, masking the user’s identity. Such phones also have been linked to suspected terror activity including by a man accused of plotting to bomb Times Square in 2010 and using a prepaid phone to communicate with co-conspirators in Pakistan.

An iteration of the rumor held that reported thefts of propane tanks might (unspecifically) be related to the cell phone purchases. On 11 December 2015 the web site BuzzPo reported that:

The FBI is on alert to a possible terrorist plot after dozens of propane tanks were stolen, and about 150 pre-paid cell phones were purchased by ‘three men with accents.’ … If that’s not enough, the U.S. Air Force reported that two Afghan students from Georgia missing as well.

Obviously, the missing Georgia Air Force students aren’t necessarily connected to the stolen propane and purchased cell phones. But in light of recent events, it shouldn’t necessarily be ruled out either.

However, that claim came one day after a 10 December 2015  report from Kansas City station WDAF that both addressed and countered speculation that the missing propane tanks were a likely sign of imminent terror attacks:

Now, another incident has some people wondering if we are in danger of a terrorist attack in our area. A large number of propane tanks have been reported stolen from several locations is Independence and Lee’s Summit … At the end of November, a BP gas station in Lee’s Summit reported 18-20 propane tanks stolen from the outside cages. That same night the CVS on Southwest 3rd Street reported the exact same crime.

While there are several ways those tanks and cell phones phones can be used, in this climate, terror attacks are always a consideration.

Retired FBI agent Michael Tabman says it is up to law enforcement to investigate and try to connect the dots.

“Certainly, we hear something about gas being stolen we worry about a potential bomb. The good news is this is probably not part of terrorist planning for a number of reasons,” Tabman said.

“One is they wouldn’t steal these items because they know that would attract law enforcement’s attention. Also this would not be a tool of choice,” he continued.

On 11 December 2015, the Macon County Sheriff’s Office published a Facebook post confirming that the cell phone purchases were unrelated to terrorism. According to that post, the “cell phones [were] not believed to be purchased for use in criminal activity,” but rather “purchased in a region for a low price and shipped to another region and sold to the general population for a large profit”:

After further investigation, the Macon County Sheriff’s Office has learned information regarding the multiple cell…

Posted by Macon County Sheriff’s Office on Friday, December 11, 2015